When a doctor calls for help

Dr Meng Aw-Yong explores the impact of a GMC investigation and where doctors can turn for support.

Doctors aren‘t bulletproof. However there is pressure to appear so - stemming not only from the exacting culture of the profession and demands of patients, but the often punitively high expectations doctors have of themselves.

That can be exacerbated by the very real external stresses under which many work, such as a huge workload and long hours in an increasingly overstretched NHS.

A recent survey found that almost two out of three young hospital doctors say their physical or mental health is being damaged by an overload of stress.

The sudden death of a colleague, suspended by the GMC after being found to be self-medicating with morphine, deeply affected Dr Meng Aw-Yong, an associate specialist at Hillingdon Hospital.

How I got involved

Vulnerable doctors

“It‘s about talking to people.”

Dr Meng Aw-Yong

As well as his job as a SAS doctor, Dr Aw-Yong is also an SAS LNC rep, a suitable person and appraiser, a medical advisor at St John Ambulance, medical director for the Metropolitan Police, a tribunal member of the Ministry of Justice and a fitness-to-practise assessor for the GMC .

Wearing these different hats means he has worked with a wide range of doctors and an even wider range of issues, while his role with the GMC gives him a unique, dual perspective. He knows how it feels on both sides of the fence and he knows doctors are a very vulnerable group.

What makes doctors vulnerable?

The reasons vary. They may feel that as a doctor, they cannot ask for help. Often, they're working in relative isolation without much opportunity to communicate their feelings, or more practically, they may be working long hours without appropriate support, but a common thread that runs throughout: they don‘t ask for help soon enough.

“Doctors join the profession to help patients. They have a lot of pride, spend a lot of time training, so any issues raised are really hard to deal with.”

Dr Meng Aw-Yong

Stress can escalate out of control around certain situations and that includes receiving a complaint. Ultimately if complaints cannot be dealt with at a local level, a doctor may find themselves receiving a letter from the GMC.

We shut ourselves in

What is the role of the GMC?

When it comes to the complaints system in the UK medical profession, GMC investigations are the tip of the iceberg.

Beneath them lie formal and informal hospital internal inquiries, serious untoward incident (SUI) investigations, and disputes with managers and colleagues.

The GMC (General Medical Council) is an independent organisation that helps to protect patients and improve medical education and practice across the UK.

Under the powers of the Medical Act (1983), the GMC acts as the regulator and sets standards that doctors are expected to follow. It has the power to warn, suspend or restrict the practice of doctors or permanently remove them from the register.

Notice of a GMC investigation starts with a letter through the door.

How it feels to be referred

When doctors need support

Between 2005 and 2013, 28 doctors involved in GMC fitness to practise proceedings died from suicide or suspected suicide.

In 2012, the Doctor support service was set up at the request of the GMC, in recognition that the investigations can be uniquely stressful. It provides confidential emotional support to doctors going through GMC procedures. For most doctors, notice that a complaint has become a GMC investigation starts with a letter through the door.

The doctor support service takes on around 120 new cases each year, and is open to all doctors, regardless of being a BMA member. Doctors using the service can receive up to six hours of support over the telephone and face-to-face support at a GMC hearing.

Most call because they feel they have no-one else to talk to. They might not feel comfortable talking to their GP, colleagues or family. Often they are at the end of their tether.

What happens during a call

The GMC is not out to get you

70% of cases brought to the GMC don‘t end in an investigation.

It is important to remember that there are roughly 9,000 complaints made to the GMC per year. Of those, 70% are closed at the triage stage.

The GMC aims to complete investigations within six months but this is often delayed by the wait for reports from various experts.

On average approximately 70 doctors are removed from the register each year.

But whatever stage you reach in an investigation, it is inevitably a distressing experience. We are here to help - whether or not you are a BMA member.

The GMC is not out to get you

Where to go for help


Digital producer and writer: Emma Lindsey
Senior multimedia producer: Matthew Saywell
Graphic designer: Alex Gay
Senior designer: Tim Grant
Senior production editor: Lisa Hansson

With special thanks to: Dr Meng Aw-Yong for his time and contribution, to the GMC for its co-operation and iStock for supplementary images.