The mental health impact of a GMC investigation

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GMC investigations can be a significant stress factor for medical practitioners who are already under huge amounts of pressure. In some cases, such as some GMC Fitness to Practise investigations, mental health is the reason for the investigation in the first place.

Without the right support, it can be easy for the doctor involved to feel overwhelmed. Unfortunately, that support is often not provided by the regulator, leaving other providers like GMC defence lawyers to help their client with any distress.

In 2014, the GMC commissioned independent consultant Sarndrah Horsfall to review incidences of suicide among doctors who were under investigation at their time of death. The review found 28 cases of confirmed or suspected suicide between 2005 and 2013.

Scope of the review

The review looked only at doctors with an open and disclosed GMC Fitness to Practise investigation at the time of their death, between 2005 and 2013 inclusive. It did not include suicides among doctors whose investigation had ended before their death.

Some of the key findings of the review include:

  • 24 deaths by suicide and a further four suspected suicides
  • 20 deaths (71%) were male, 8 deaths (29%) were female
  • 40% of deaths were under the age of 40 (one was under 30)
  • Nearly half (46%) were married or partnered
  • One in four (25%) had either retired or were unemployed at their time of death

Two of the fatalities were trainees, highlighting that the stresses of a GMC FTP investigation can be harrowing at any stage in a medical career, whether due to the prospect of losing a long future career, or losing a respected position gained over many years of hard work.

Mental health risks during investigation

Of the 28 fatalities, 20 had known health problems during their investigation. Of those, 14 were assessed and six were deemed unfit to practise, while the remaining eight were deemed fit to practise with supervision.

Conditions with significance for mental health were common in the group of 20 whose health problems were known to GMC investigators:

  • 8 had alcohol-related illnesses
  • 7 had depression
  • 4 had bipolar depression
  • 2 had substance misuse
  • 7 had dual diagnoses

Six of the 20, nearly a third of the total, had a suicide risk known to the GMC and seven (35%) had a history of self-harm. About two in five took their own lives using drugs taken from their workplace (11%) or medication prescribed to them (18%).

How long is a GMC FTP investigation?

The duration of a GMC FTP investigation can be a factor in increasing mental health problems for the defendant. As cases drag on and on, it can be difficult to anticipate that there will be an end and life can improve once more, whatever the outcome.

In the review, the timing of suicides was fairly evenly split. A quarter of deaths occurred during the first three months of an investigation, with a further 29% by the end of the first year.

Another 14% of deaths occurred during the second year of their investigation, 18% were after 2-5 years of investigation, and 14% had been under investigation for more than five years.

The data shows the importance of seeking professional help early in proceedings – ideally, as soon as you are notified of an impending investigation – and taking prompt action to attempt to resolve the case as quickly as possible.

Get help with a GMC Fitness to Practise investigation

Our GMC lawyers are here to help throughout any active GMC Fitness to Practise investigation. We can clarify the claims made against you and any expected responses from you.

In most cases, you do not need to provide a written response to the initial notification from the GMC, but you should reply within 28 days to the subsequent Rule 7 letter that sets out any allegations against you in more detail.

By speaking to a GMC Fitness to Practise defence lawyer when you receive the initial notification, you can demonstrate the qualities of insight and reflection that the GMC expects to see, as well as preparing in advance for receipt of the Rule 7 letter.

Help with mental health during GMC investigations

Prompt and pragmatic action can help to keep things in perspective so that you experience less stress during your GMC FTP investigation, and so that you can see the future beyond the end of the investigation.

We genuinely appreciate the intense stress that medical practitioners experience during professional investigations and we are always here to support our clients.

Equally, we would urge you to acknowledge that an investigation is a temporary obstacle and, whatever the outcome, there is a brighter future ahead.

With the help of our GMC lawyers, you can maximise the likelihood of a positive outcome, and minimise your emotional distress from the very start of the process and throughout.