Opinion Former Article

MDU calls for more support for doctors investigated following a patient’s unexpected death

The Medical Defence Union (MDU) says doctors being investigated following a patient’s unexpected death need support and understanding from their trust or primary care organisation.

Responding to the GMC commissioned Dame Clare Marx’s review of gross negligence manslaughter and culpable homicide, the MDU said there needs to be more consistency and fairness in the way trusts respond to unexpected deaths and the investigations that follow. This, in turn, could prevent unnecessary referrals of doctors to the police and investigations for gross negligence manslaughter.

Dr Oliver Lord, MDU medico-legal adviser said:

“It is right that organisations should focus on those left behind after a close relative or friend has died. But trusts also need to recognise and deal supportively with staff involved as they are often extremely distressed and fearful when a patient’s death is unexpected.

“In the MDU’s experience, some trusts and primary care organisations are supportive of doctors involved in unexpected deaths, either because there is a clear trust policy or because the doctors are fortunate to have a clinical director or colleagues who understand and are supportive. We see investigations that are undertaken with the sole aim of identifying what went wrong, why it went wrong and how to address any learning points. Unfortunately, this is not the norm and our members often report that they feel those in authority seem to close ranks and often thrust the doctor into the spotlight unaided.

“Unexpected deaths should be investigated in a fair and transparent way and the NHS should seek initially to learn lessons, rather than to apportion blame. That isn’t to say that doctors shouldn’t be held accountable, but there are separate procedures, such as a GMC or disciplinary investigation, where such decisions can and should be made.”

The MDU commented that arrangements for reporting and investigating serious incidents could be improved if each organisation had to publicise and stick to its process. It is also important for trusts and primary care organisations to set minimum levels of resource, knowledge, skills and experience for investigation teams, the MDU suggested.

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