No Comebacks for Doctors Reporting Abuse?

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In July 2012, the General Medical Council (GMC) published new guidance for doctors on the reporting of abuse. The document entitled “Protecting children and young people” comes into effect on the 3rd September 2012. It states “Taking action will be justified, even if it turns out that the child or young person is not at risk of, or suffering, abuse or neglect, as long as the concerns are honestly held and reasonable, and the doctor takes action through appropriate channels.”

These may be comforting words, but the wider law is less forgiving of a doctor’s mistakes.

The consequences of misdiagnosis can be very serious indeed. When issuing their new Guidance, the GMC clearly had in mind the death of Baby Peter Connelly in 2007, who suffered 50 injuries at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, despite receiving 60 visits from doctors, social workers and the police.  In 2010, his GP, Jerome Ikwueke was suspended from the medical register for a year.

In the case of AD and OH v United Kingdom [2010] ECHR 340 a mother had her child taken away from her, after the child was misdiagnosed with signs of abuse. Fractures that showed up on X rays were in fact caused by a rare condition known as osteogenesis imperfect, otherwise known as brittle bone disease. Both mother and child took their case to the European Court of Human Rights and were awarded Euro 15,000 jointly for breach of their human rights. However the court commented that there had been “relevant and sufficient reasons” for the authorities to take protective measures. It had been subsequent failings that had infringed the Applicants’ human rights.

Another disturbing case was that of Webster v Norfolk County Council [2009] EWCA Civ 59 where the Court of Appeal refused to hand back three children taken away from their parents and adopted, after it turned out the bone fractures discovered in one of them, had been caused by iron deficiency. Despite the misdiagnosis, Wall LJ felt that it would be wrong to criticise any of the social workers or the doctors who advised the family court judge in the care proceedings. However it was simply too late to return the children to their parents.

The GMC is not trying to give doctors any kind of blanket immunity from disciplinary proceedings, but rather clarifying what it is that they are expected to do in these appalling situations. Sadly these questions have to be asked of doctors all too frequently, and sometimes the answers have tragic consequences.

Malcolm Johnson

Associate - Personal Injury team

Malcolm Johnson specialises in child abuse compensation claims. For further information on any of the above issues, please contact Malcolm on 02078145441 or at Alternatively, please fill in our Contact form and we will call you back.

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