Expert witness skills “should be part of doctors’ training”

Hendry: Much wider pool of doctors needed

Learning the skills of being an expert witness should be part of the training of GPs and consultants so they can give evidence when other doctors are under the microscope, it has been claimed.

The Medical Protection Society (MPS) set out a four-point action plan to encourage and support doctors to become expert witnesses, because it was important to “ensure that doctors have an informed hearing” when they appear before the General Medical Council (GMC) or face criminal charges.

The MPS said:

  • The role of expert witnesses should be looked at by the GMC as part of its drive to set up new credentials for the medical register;
  • GP and consultant training should include acquiring the skillset to be an expert witness;
  • NHS employers should make it easier for doctors to be relieved from their clinical duties so they can act as expert witnesses. This may require contractual reform to give the expert witness role greater prominence, and greater certainty for those wishing to discharge the role; and
  • More doctors should be encouraged to consider putting themselves forward to perform expert witness duties.

Dr Rob Hendry, medical director at MPS, said “The expert evidence of a doctor – as to the expected standard of care – can be pivotal in a tribunal hearing or in criminal trials concerning incidents that have occurred in a healthcare setting.

“This is why there needs to be a much wider pool of doctors with the right experience who are able to serve. It is a vital role that doctors can perform on behalf of and in support of their profession.

He said any doctor facing a tribunal or court would hope that the assessment of their practice has been carried out by someone respected by their peers and who can present balanced evidence “in the context of delivering healthcare in a modern-day NHS”.

Dr Hendry continued: “Many doctors feel uncomfortable describing themselves as experts – that word carries a lot of different connotations.

“However, if a doctor is established in their speciality, and has built up expert knowledge in a particular area then it is likely that they have the necessary level of experience to act as an expert.

“Above all else, they need to be able to be able to provide informative and balanced evidence that assists the court to set a fair benchmark for the accused doctor.

“We need more doctors to be freed up by their employer as well as encouraged and trained to take on this important role.”

    Readers Comments

  • Dr G Spoto says:

    I read this report with great interest. I believe this is a hugely important development.
    As a Consultant Psychiatrist working in the NHS for many and as Medical Educator I have always been acutely aware of the lack of medicolegal training available to aspiring experts ,particularly with regard to supervised practice.
    As Educational Supervisor for higher psychiatric trainees I was able to introduce medicolegal experience in the Job Descriptions of higher trainees in a large training scheme, something which was very successful and which I am soon hoping to be able to replicate in the private sector.
    Of course the case for better access to medicolegal education could not be made more strongly than from a Medical Indemnity perspective and Psychiatrists, policy makers and NHS employers should all be united sharing Dr Hendry ‘s concerns as well as his Action Plan.
    Yours faithfully,
    Dr G Spoto FRCPsych MA FAcadMEd
    Independent Doctors Federation

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