Over worked doctors gives up the fight

PUBLISHED: 17:34 04 October 2001 | UPDATED: 10:37 03 March 2010

WEIGHED down by an enormous workload, it was probably his popularity as an old-style family doctor which led to the downfall of Charles Burnham-Slipper.

WEIGHED down by an enormous workload, it was probably his popularity as an old-style family doctor which led to the downfall of Charles Burnham-Slipper.

These days, Government does not want doctors who sit and listen to their patients, taking time to know them and their families, gaining experience and knowledge which will help them diagnose a problem or stave off future illness.

No, the days of a doctor being a friend to the family are gone.

Today it's in, seated, symptoms, diagnosis, prescription, out – another statistic added to the politicians' justification for the under-pressure NHS.

Dr Burnham-Slipper's adherence to the ways he had practised for more than 30 years – the ways his patients expected him to use – just couldn't match up to the growing paperwork doctors are expected to complete and the increasing workload apparent in so many jobs today, just ask any teacher.

Twelve-hour days at the surgery, followed by long evenings dealing with paperwork at home led to overload.

The General Medical Council's found this caused serious professional misconduct when he failed to refer five patients, including four women who suspected they had cancer, to specialists. He was also criticised for removing a large number of patients' medical records from his practice after taking them home to work on.

The council suspended him from practising, pending an appeal which he has now withdrawn.

But was this the right punishment for a doctor who had given sterling service to his community for decades, through generations of families, saving lives and curing people from illness?

Here was a man who commanded such loyalty and respect that thousands of his patients would sign petitions and write letters to have him reinstated – yet along with all his experience and knowledge, he was just being dumped.

Supporters of Dr Charles Burnham-Slipper have consistently stated that they felt the punishment was too harsh.

They accepted that Dr William McKee, his partner at the practice in Walton High Street, Felixstowe, did right to report his concerns about the GP.

They also accept that he needed to be punished but felt he should have been given a different sentence and allowed to continue practising with help and support to overcome the problems being caused by his workload.

After the case, Dr McKee, who had vetoed part-time help at the surgery to ease Dr Burnham-Slipper's workload when he began to lose his battle against mounting piles of paperwork, was given help by Suffolk Health Authority which provided a locum to cover Thursday mornings so he could catch up on admin.

Penny Parker, who led the campaign for reinstatement of Dr Burnham-Slipper, said: "We just think the punishment he was given was too harsh.

"They had several other options and surely it would have been better for the GMC to have tackled the problem and kept an experienced and good doctor than just cast him off like that.

"He could have been given extra help, advised on how to handle paperwork, or been monitored or regularly checked."

Indeed the GMC could have imposed a different sentence.

Its powers range from a warning, to being struck off and a GP's name being erased from the medical register.

It could have placed conditions on Dr Burnham-Slipper's registration for up to three years, limiting his freedom to practise medicine or putting in place checks or help to overcome the problems he was facing with his workload.

It could also have suspended him for up to a year, and even being struck off is not the end as doctors can reapply to work again after 10 months, though they do then have to prove before a panel that they are fit to work again.

Any period of suspension of more than a few months, or being struck off, does make it difficult for a GP to keep up with the ever-changing world of medicine.

The GMC has an assessment panel which examines problems in a GP's performance, assesses their practice thoroughly, and identifies deficiencies and recommend action to deal with them, such as counselling or training.

After a specified period a further assessment takes place to see if the action has been a success.

Such help could have been given to Dr Burnham-Slipper to help him manage his workload more efficiently, help him deal with the pressures upon him from the large number of the surgeries' patients who wanted appointments with him, and to help him get to grips with new technology and paperwork.

The GMC, the organisation that grants GPs' licences to practise medicine, was set up to protect patients and guide doctors. Its officials will not talk about individual GPs or decisions already made.

"Our main purpose is to protect the public. Patients must be confident that the doctors they trust with their lives and well being will observe standards of practice and ethics which justify that trust," said the GMC.

"We do not act on trivial or anonymous complaints, or those where we are not likely to get enough evidence to support a case.

"Where the problem concerns a doctor's conduct, our action can range from a warning to – in the most serious cases – striking the doctor's name off the register, with a range of options in between."


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