Medics learn to blow whistle

August 16, 2002

Medical students in the UK must now learn how to blow the whistle on incompetent colleagues.

The General Medical Council has published a set of recommendations for medical education that places a clearer emphasis on patient safety.

New clauses say medical graduates must be able to show that they understand "how errors can happen in practice and the principles of managing risk".

The graduates must also "recognise the duty to protect patients and others by taking action if a colleague's health, performance or conduct is putting patients at risk".

The guidelines, an update on the 1993 Tomorrow's Doctors report, address recommendations in the public inquiry into children's heart surgery at the Bristol Royal Infirmary.

The inquiry said that competence in non-clinical aspects of caring for patients should be formally assessed and that communication skills must be an essential part of education.

Sir Graeme Catto, president of the General Medical Council and dean of Guy's, King's and St Thomas's Medical School, said: "It is now an accepted part of undergraduate medical education that patients have to be protected and colleagues who are underperforming have to be helped."

He said that there was no good system in the world for truly protecting whistleblowers, though.

"Whistleblowers in any system seem to get damaged by the very process of blowing the whistle. We have to work to avoid that," he added.

Sam Leinster, the dean of the new medical school at the University of East Anglia, told The THES : "Studies have shown that medical students are extremely reluctant to blow the whistle."

He said that the UEA had built openness, responsibility to patients and an understanding of clinical governance clearly into its new course.

Professor Leinster said: "We have formal lectures and a series of seminars on whistleblowing.

"Students are also encouraged to keep a running log of what they have learnt, observed and are concerned about.

"They meet with an academic adviser in a tutorial group once a month so that they can voice those concerns."

The medical school is keen to pilot the idea of a "buddy group", where students from a number of professions meet to discuss broader ethical issues, when students come to do their pre-registration house year.

"We have worked closely with the GMC throughout the development of the course and know that it meets their requirements," Professor Leinster added.

The UEA'smedical school will admit its first students to the course in October.

The GMC in the UK has a statutory responsibility for promoting high standards of medical education and for coordinating all stages of medical education.

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