Disabled lose fight to study medicine

May 3, 2002

The Court of Appeal has thrown out a landmark case on the rights of disabled people to study and practise medicine.

Paraplegic Heidi Cox had won the right to sue the General Medical Council for disability discrimination at a tribunal after the council barred her from studying medicine at Oxford University.

But the Employment Appeal Tribunal has overturned the decision, ruling that the GMC is not liable under the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act.

Bert Massie, chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, said: "The pathology profession has lost a highly competent and dedicated student... The GMC should start to look beyond the legal arguments and see how it can welcome disabled people to the medical profession."

Ms Cox said: "I am disappointed that the decision has made it impossible for myself and future disabled applicants to enter the medical profession."

Ms Cox was involved in an accident in 1992 during her first year of medical training. A wheelchair user since 1993, she gained a first-class honours degree in pathobiology from Reading University and an MSc from City University.

Planning to become a pathologist, she applied to complete her medical studies at Oxford University in 1999. Oxford's director of clinical studies, Susan Burge, sought advice from the GMC, observing that Ms Cox appeared to be a "good candidate".

But Dr Burge said: "She will never be able to undertake some of the procedures listed by the GMC, such as, for example, basic cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. On the other hand, there will be many procedures that she would be able to carry out and, in the long term, a wheelchair-bound doctor may have a lot to offer the profession."

Graeme Catto, the chairman of the GMC's education committee, said: "The committee... cannot in law agree an alternative curriculum which covers a lesser order of knowledge and skill in the case of medical students who are known from the outset to be unable to complete a full graduate course consistent with the GMC's guidance."

The first tribunal hearing rejected the GMC's argument that it was not a "trade organisation" within the meaning of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act and therefore did not fall under the terms of the act.

But the appeal tribunal overturned this, arguing that it was not a trade organisation as it was set up to protect the public from incompetent and unqualified medical practitioners, not to protect the interests of the medical profession.

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