Doctors from black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) groups continue to be discriminated against when it comes to deciding whether complaints against them should reach a tribunal, frontline medics fear.
Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK) has written to the General Medical Council (GMC) after a Northamptonshire-based doctor of South Asian origin was suspended this month after a panel found she had lied about examining a patient.
Dr Nithya Pandian recorded her assessment of a patient’s heart, breathing and abdomen during a case at Kettering General Hospital, but the GMC’s Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service panel found it was “more likely than not” that she had not physically assessed the patient. The woman, who was also a nurse and midwife, complained to the GMC after the incident in May 2019. She had noticed Dr Pandian’s written findings when she was seen by a consultant a few minutes later and registered a complaint with the GMC in November 2020.
The panel found Dr Pandian guilty of serious misconduct, because she would not have known if there was something seriously wrong with the patient.
The patient also complained to Kettering General Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and an ombudsman, but both closed their respective cases without making any finding against Dr Pandian. In a witness statement last November, Dr Pandian said she had “not knowingly written false or inaccurate information” on medical records and that the assessment was a “true and accurate representation” of her interaction with the woman.
While the GMC said it was confident it was an “isolated episode that happened on one day” and that it “appeared to be out of character” for a “good doctor”, it said it was “troubling” that the doctor held the “unrealistic” view that she was unable to make a simple mistake. The panel said a two-month suspension was “appropriate and proportionate” and was enough time for Dr Pandian “to reflect and fully develop her insight”.
However, DAUK said another doctor who was also accused of lying about examinations in the same case was not taken to a tribunal. It wrote to the GMC on Tuesday to demand assurances that there was “no discriminatory element” in the panel’s decision to suspend Dr Pandian.
The letter states: “Dr Pandian’s actions appear to have been an isolated incident without significant risk of repetition. The tribunal could have given greater weight to the positive testimonials, CPD [continuous, professional development] courses and other evidence that indicated the high standards Dr Pandian maintains in her practice.
“Of equal concern is that the information available suggests that a consultant, Dr C, was described within the tribunal as having not examined the patient in question, but does not appear to have faced any sanction or scrutiny. This raises potential concerns around differential treatment and the possibility of discriminatory decision making in this case.
“While we recognise that many factors will have contributed to the GMC’s decision to pursue action against Dr Pandian and not Dr C, it is important that medical regulation is seen to be fair, just and non-discriminatory.”
DAUK has asked the GMC for further information as to the reasons why Dr C does not appear to have faced any sanction or investigation in relation to this incident, while Dr Pandian has been subject to a hearing and suspension.
The case is the latest where medics are concerned whether ethnic minority doctors are treated differently to white colleagues after complaints have been made about them.
Last November, an independent review found the GMC mishandled the case of an overseas-born medic with the authors concluding the NHS is “not a level playing field for staff of all backgrounds”. Dr Manjula Arora, 59, a locum in Manchester, was suspended following a laptop request, subjected to a 15-month inquiry and eventually given a month’s suspension.
The decision provoked uproar and thousands of doctors rallied behind Dr Arora, saying it sparked “grave concerns” over the treatment of ethnic minority doctors. The ban was overturned in June as the review was under way. The case hinged on a legal test around dishonesty which was wrongly applied, the review, commissioned by the GMC, found.
In March, Valentine Udoye, a doctor who had been cleared by a medical practitioners tribunal of any misconduct, had to face a new tribunal after the GMC appealed the case to the High Court. Dr Udoye went on to win the new tribunal case.
Only 29 per cent of complaints against white doctors led to GMC investigations compared to 44 per cent and 40 per cent in the cases of Black and Asian doctors respectively, according to figures obtained in 2019 through Freedom of Information requests. Some 29 doctors have died while undergoing a GMC investigation, and five took their own lives between 2018 and 2020.
DAUK co-chair, Dr Matt Kneale, told i: “This case raises serious questions about medicolegal practice in the NHS. For a long time it held true that if something has been written in the notes, this would hold a greater weight than memory recall. It appears that the tribunal no longer feel this view has merit, and risk is now disproportionately taken on by doctors during consultations.”
“We have additional concerns that the same accusation was levied against two doctors, but the senior one was not taken to tribunal or called as a witness in this case. In the context of previous cases like Dr Arora and Dr Udoye, this brings a possibility of discriminatory bias. We have written to the GMC to clarify this as a matter of urgency.”
The GMC has been approached for comment.