Urgent reform needed as doctors under investigation by regulator report toll on mental health

11 June 2024

Medical Protection has called for urgent reform to how the Medical Council investigates doctors, as new research reveals the significant impact the investigation process is having on registrants’ mental health.

In the Medical Protection survey of 114 practitioners who have been investigated by the Medical Council in the last five years, more than three quarters (77%) said the investigation had a detrimental impact on their mental health, and 93% said it caused stress and anxiety. Nearly a quarter (24%) of respondents considered quitting medicine due to their investigation, whilst one in ten (10%) either left or retired early. 1 in 10 (12%) also reported experiencing suicidal thoughts during their investigation.

In the survey, 70% of respondents said the length of the investigation impacted on their mental health the most, with some investigations lasting several years. Over half (53%) said the tone of the communications from the Medical Council affected them most. Doctors commenting anonymously spoke of feeling “guilty until proven innocent”, whilst others described Medical Council correspondence as “cold”, “legalistic” and “hard to understand”.

Medical Protection - the world’s leading protection organisation supporting 16,000 healthcare professionals in Ireland - has called on both the Medical Council and the Department of Health to take urgent steps to reduce the number of doctors needlessly dragged through this process, and resolve cases with more speed and compassion.

Dr James Thorpe, Deputy Medical Director at Medical Protection, said: “Medical Protection supports doctors from the moment a Medical Council complaint is received through to its conclusion. We see how the investigation takes its toll on the mental health of those involved, and these survey results are worrying.

“We understand that the Medical Council aims to protect the public by ensuring the high standards of professional conduct and competence among doctors, however, we feel it could operate and communicate with doctors under investigation with more compassion. For example, acknowledging the stress of the investigation, signposting to wellbeing services, providing regular updates, and breaking down legalistic language.

“Members tell us the length of their investigation has the most impact on their mental health, and sadly this comes as no surprise; we are aware of some complaints taking up to seven years to resolve, which is unacceptable.

“We know the Medical Council is in some respects bound by its regulatory framework and statutory obligations which cause delays, but we believe there are several steps the regulator could take outside of the framework to improve their own processes. A review into Medical Council processes, and the length of investigations, would be welcomed.

“The Department of Health must also do more to ensure fewer doctors are dragged through this extremely stressful process unnecessarily. The Regulated Professions Act 2020 delegates the statutory powers to triage complaints to the Medical Council, meaning those not requiring further action could be closed swiftly, and it can focus on cases which potentially pose a risk to patient safety. The legislation is however yet to be commenced and this is becoming increasingly urgent.

“The constructive discussions we have had with the Medical Council on these issues, and their willingness to consider our recommendations, is positive. We hope to continue this dialogue and do everything possible to help bring about improvements. One doctor quitting medicine, or worse, experiencing suicidal thoughts due to a Medical Council investigation, is one too many.”

Anonymous comments from doctorswho participated in Medical Protection’s research:

“The Medical Council came across as cold and heartless and no one was concerned about the impact the process would have on my mental health and wellbeing.”

“Very stressful and difficult time, I became depressed and anxious and lost confidence in myself.”

“The Medical Council seem to have little regard for wellbeing of their doctors.”

“Prolonged waiting periods without communication is extremely stressful and false claims of getting a date have put my life on hold several times.”

“Very infrequent updates, with no timelines when or how the next stage is being progressed.”

“I found the whole affair very stressful. Particularly the length of time it took from when the Medical Council notified me of the complaint to final decision of the PPC.”

“Sometimes it is hard to understand strictly legal terms and procedures.”

“Stressed by what I perceive as an unwarranted complaint, and by the 7 years that the Medical Council has taken to deal with it.”

“[The case] dragged out for 3 years, despite getting support from the MPS it didn't stop the illness that the procedure bore on me and my family relationships.”

“It felt like the Medical Council were very matter of fact and "cold" in their correspondence as though you were "guilty" until proven otherwise.”

“I think that the attitude of the Medical Council need not be as adversarial as it is. While their function is to protect the public, that function can be done with empathy not only for the patient involved but also for the doctor.”


Notes to editors

About MPS

The Medical Protection Society Limited (“MPS”) is the world’s leading protection organisation for doctors, dentists and healthcare professionals. We protect and support the professional interests of more than 300,000 members around the world. Membership provides access to expert advice and support and can also provide, depending on the type of membership required, the right to request indemnity for any complaints or claims arising from professional practice.

Our in-house experts assist with the wide range of legal and ethical problems that arise from professional practice. This can include clinical negligence claims, complaints, medical and dental council inquiries, legal and ethical dilemmas, disciplinary procedures, inquests and fatal accident inquiries.

Our philosophy is to support safe practice in medicine and dentistry by helping to avert problems in the first place. We do this by promoting risk management through our workshops, E-learning, clinical risk assessments, publications, conferences, lectures and presentations.

MPS is not an insurance company. All the benefits of membership of MPS are discretionary as set out in the Memorandum and Articles of Association.