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Professional Discipline & Regulation Solicitor Rosemary Rollason on Healthcare professionals

Many medical and healthcare professionals are fortunate enough not to face a disciplinary complaint which brings them into contact with their professional regulatory body during the whole of their professional career.

All the main healthcare professions are governed by a statutory regulatory body, including doctors by the General Medical Council and dentists by the General Dental Council. More recently, the Health & Care Professions Council has become the statutory regulator for 16 professions whose registrants may work in the professional sports field, including physiotherapists, dieticians, clinical scientists, paramedics, radiographers, chiropodists and podiatrists.

Not all professionals realise that the regulatory body’s primary role is not to represent its members or promote the interests of the profession: that is the role of professional associations, such as the League Medical Association, and unions. In contrast, regulatory bodies exist to promote the public interest by regulating the professions. Their key duties in law are protection of the public (that is patients/ clients and the user of health services), setting standards for education and practice and maintaining public confidence in the profession.

When a regulator receives a complaint from a member of the public against a professional, it has a duty to investigate it and decide, by means of a long and sometimes complex legal process, whether the professional’s “fitness to practice is impaired”. This could be on the grounds of misconduct, sub-standard clinical performance, ill health or due to holding a criminal conviction.

The elite professional sports sphere may seem removed from healthcare practice in the wider world, but professionals practicing within it are subject to exactly the same standards and codes of conduct as any other healthcare professional. A high profile case which caught the attention of the media recently was the “Bloodgate” rugby case, which involved allegations of cheating by a top club by using fake blood capsules during a match to fabricate an injury to a rugby player in order to secure a substitution. A physiotherapist and a doctor were both alleged to have been involved in the incident.

The case brought the role of the healthcare professionals working in elite sport under the public spotlight. The two professionals were called to account for their professional conduct “on the field of play” before their respective regulators, the General Medical Council and the Health Professions Council and received disciplinary sanctions.

Healthcare professionals are not always fully aware of the wide ranging powers their professional regulator has. For example:

•    professionals are required them to comply with their professional standards in all areas of their lives and at all times, not only when actually treating patients: hence a criminal conviction received in circumstances completely unrelated to their professional life will considered by the regulator and could lead to disciplinary investigation;

•    if when a complaint is received by the regulator it suggests a professional poses an urgent risk of harm to the public, the regulator has the power at a very early stage to impose an urgent “interim order”. This could prevent the professional from practising and earning his/her living long before any actual decision on the complaint is reached, whilst the regulator investigates and takes the case to a disciplinary hearing. This can sometimes take many months, or even years. There is an opportunity for the professional to oppose the making of an interim order at a hearing, so it is vital to seek advice and engage with the process if this happens;
•    If the complaint is referred to a full disciplinary hearing and the professional’s fitness to practise is found to be impaired, the regulatory tribunal can impose a range of sanctions including a warning, the imposition of conditions limiting practice, a period of suspension or, in the most serious cases, removal from the professional register (“striking off”). If a professional is “struck off”, in the case of many of the health professions, the professional cannot make an application to be restored to the register again for at least five years.

The stakes for a professional, who is the subject of such a complaint, even if ultimately it proves to be unfounded, are very high. Many years of training, past successful practice and professional reputation may be at risk. It is vital the professional does not “bury his or her head in the sand” and actively engages with the regulator’s process from an early stage. He or she should promptly seek advice from a professional association such as the LMedA. If it becomes clear the complaint is going to progress to a full investigation and a hearing, then specialist legal advice and representation is likely to be advisable.   This article first appeared in the League Medical Association Journal.

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