Family doctors accused of misconduct are being suspended from treating patients for up to four and a half years and costing taxpayers as much as £900,000 for each case, the NHS has revealed.
The disclosures have sparked demands for the doctors’ disciplinary system to be speeded up so more money can be spent on frontline health services and less on paying GPs barred from working.
Figures provided by primary care trusts (PCTs) in England show that 134 GPs have been suspended over the last three years at a cost of £8.2m. That only takes into account their pay – any suspended GP receives 90% of their normal salary – so the real costs to the PCTs will be higher, including the costs of hiring replacements and pursuing the complaints.
The details, obtained by the Liberal Democrats under the Freedom of Information Act from 108 of England’s 152 PCTs, have been passed to the Guardian.
Norman Lamb, the party’s health spokesman, said: “These figures are scandalous, involve a huge waste of public money and show that the system of pursuing allegations against doctors is failing.”
In Haringey, north London, the PCT has spent almost £1.4m in the last three years on three GPs who were suspended. In Newham, east London, £1.1m of the PCT’s budget since 2006 has gone on paying seven suspended GPs, three of whose cases took more than a year to conclude.
Replacing one family doctor who has been suspended for four and a half years in South Birmingham with two locums has cost the PCT £908,000. The GP is accused of helping to facilitate an abortion in Spain, contrary to the law there, and a range of other serious failings.
Single suspensions have also been costly for PCTs in Bury (£404,352), South Essex (£313,070) and Heywood, Middleton and Rochdale (£309,948).
Lamb said: “The government must initiate an immediate review of the way the disciplinary system works. It’s hard to see why any case should take years. The cost of these lengthy delays will stick in the throat of anyone who has sought to get access to a cancer drug, IVF, specialist mental health service or any other treatment where there’s a postcode lottery.”
GPs suspected of misbehaviour can be suspended by the PCT or the General Medical Council (GMC), which regulates doctors.
PCTs handle less serious cases and have to deal with them within six months or seek specific approval to take longer. The GMC pursues more serious cases involving, for example, claims that a doctor has sexually assaulted a patient or prescribed the wrong drug. Any doctor suspended by the GMC receives no pay at all.
Dr John Canning, of the British Medical Association, said: “The doctors’ disciplinary system can be quite slow. It needs to be just and both sides need time to prepare. But even bearing that in mind, too many cases take too long.” Any doctor banned by their PCT should have their case resolved within six months, except in exceptional circumstances, he said.
David Stout, the director of the PCT Network, said trusts were often frustrated by the length of time taken by the GMC to resolve cases. “Some of the delays are excessive, very costly and benefit nobody We need to improve the system to reach swifter conclusions. Money spent on these suspensions is money that can’t be spent on cancer drugs, mental health or providing better sexual health services,” he said.
GMC statistics obtained by the Liberal Democrats show the number of all doctors suspended in the UK has risen from 216 in 2004 to 388 last year, and those struck off rose from 26 in 2004 to 74 in 2008.
Of the 1,063 doctors suspended between 2004 and 2008, 99 were suspended for two to three years, 57 for three to four years and 50 for between four and five years. The longest current suspension involves two doctors who have both been banned for 1,810 days so far.
Professor Steve Field, the chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said only a handful of the UK’s 45,000 family doctors had faced serious allegations: “GPs’ performance isn’t getting worse and public satisfaction remains high. The number of GPs who are poorly performing on clinical grounds is tiny.”
The GMC said 94% of its fitness to practise hearings were heard within 15 months.A spokesperson said: “Our primary concern is ensuring that those on the medical register are fit to practise. As we deal with the most serious complaints it is appropriate that we have the power to suspended doctors from the register, in order to protect patients, while we investigate.”