Medical Protection is calling on more women doctors in active practice to put themselves forward for expert witness work, as General Medical Council (GMC) data shows that 86% of the experts instructed in fitness to practise cases are men – only 11% are women.
The figures, obtained by Medical Protection through an FOI request to the GMC, follow the launch of the report Getting it right when things go wrong: the role of the medical expert which highlighted the shortage of appropriately qualified doctors willing to undertake expert work and the need for the pool to be more diverse to reflect the medical workforce.
Medical Protection fears the low proportion of women on the GMC’s list of expert witnesses is indicative of the wider medical expert community and says barriers preventing women from taking up the role need to be broken down.
Dr Lucy Hanington, Medicolegal Consultant at Medical Protection, said: “Medical expert opinion plays a critical role in a range of criminal, civil, coronial and GMC processes. Such opinion can determine, for example, whether or not the Crown Prosecution Service pursues a conviction for gross negligence manslaughter following an incident or error that leads to the death of a patient. In the Family Courts, medical opinion is relied upon in relation to decisions where the lives and wellbeing of children are at stake.
“Many bodies including courts and regulators are reporting difficulties in finding appropriately qualified doctors to undertake expert witness work. This is concerning in itself, but data showing that only a fraction of GMC experts are women, confirms our fear that the expert pool is lacking in diversity as well as in size. There is though no single, centralised register of accredited expert witnesses to ascertain the complete picture.
“Medical expert witnesses provide a lens through which the courts and regulators glimpse what is going on in the real world of contemporary medical practice and they therefore influence society’s perception of the cultural norms and standards in medicine. Because of this influence it is important that the pool experts are drawn from is diverse and representative of the profession.
“We know there is concern that women and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in senior leadership positions. Diversifying the expert witness pool is part of a wider jigsaw in addressing this and we need to break down the barriers preventing women from considering the work.
“One common misperception is that an elite few undertake this work at the end their careers. In fact, the majority of consultants and GPs - ideally those in current clinical practice with up-to-date knowledge and a true understanding of the systems in which doctors work - should have the requisite knowledge to provide opinion in their field of expertise after an initial period in post, and should feel confident in doing so.
“We recognise there are practical difficulties in combining the demands of the Court with those of busy clinical practice and family life, however a lot of expert work can now be completed remotely.
“NHS employers and private healthcare providers should encourage expert witness training and recognise the gains associated with expert witness work forming an integral part of a doctor’s skillset. The work requires regular updating of knowledge, clear communication skills, as well as the ability to analyse complex information and come to a conclusion. Those doing expert work will be well placed to conduct Root Cause Analyses, for example, and share learnings with colleagues. Encouraging doctors to diversify their role may also improve job satisfaction and prevent burnout.”
Notes to editors
The FOI request to the GMC revealed that 86% of its expert witnesses are men, 11% are women and 3% have not specified gender.
View the Medical Protection report Getting it right when things go wrong: the role of the medical expert: Getting it right when things go wrong - The role of the expert witness (medicalprotection.org)
For further information contact Kate Tullett, Media Manager: E: [email protected] T:+44 (0)7515 298791.
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.