This post was originally going to be part of Monday’s on the British Medical Association and euthanasia, but having made a start I felt it deserved its own space, so here it is.
Last Thursday the General Medical Council (GMC) published its ruling in the case of Dr Richard Scott who is a Christian GP. Dr Scott’s case is a difficult one and presented problems both for him and the GMC who held the disciplinary hearing. The case dates back to September 2010 when Dr Scott was accused of pushing his Christian views onto a patient at the end of a consultation. The complaint was not made by the patient, but instead by their mother who had arranged the appointment as the patient had mental health issues.
You can read the full GMC ruling here. The text shows that the GMC had to make some decisions as to whether Dr Scott had overstepped the mark based on conflicting evidence between the two accounts given by him and the patient. When the accusation was first raised Dr Scott was offered the chance to accept a warning over his conduct. He refused and so the complaint went to a full hearing where he was found guilty of malpractice and told that if he repeats the offence he is likely to be struck off.
Trying to read between the lines, Dr Scott appears to have been treading a fine line between expressing his beliefs in a way that he thought would be of benefit to the patient and telling them that Christianity was the answer to their problems.
Dr Scott clearly believes that he stayed within the professional boundaries, but unfortunately his patient did not come away seeing the experience in the same light. Consequently having considered the evidence, the GMC decided that he had breached the principles in Good Medical Practice and summarised its decision to give him a formal warning as follows:
‘The Committee considers that it is appropriate, proportionate and in the public interest for the protection of the reputation of the profession to issue you with a warning.’
Different people are going to read different things into this ruling. Christian Concern and this Telegraph article have come out in support for Dr Scott whilst Robert Winston in the Guardian believes that he was lucky not to have been struck off, although he does admit that he has sympathy for Dr Scott and is unsure whether he did actually breach medical ethics.
The danger with this case is that in response Christian doctors will draw back from discussing faith and in particular their own beliefs for fear of being drawn into a similar situation to Dr Scott. Medicine is one of the few remaining professions that acknowledges that faith can play an important role in people’s lives and that patients’ religious beliefs should be valued when prescribing treatment or addressing underlying issues, but I can see Christian doctors increasingly steering clear of discussing faith issues and mentioning their own faith if they are worried about the consequences of a complaint being made against them.
The Department of Health’s practical guide on religion and belief offers the following guidance:
“Members of some religions … are expected to preach and to try to convert other people. In a workplace environment this can cause many problems, as non-religious people and those from other religions or beliefs could feel harassed and intimidated by this behaviour… To avoid misunderstandings and complaints on this issue, it should be made clear to everyone from the first day of training and/or employment, and regularly restated, that such behaviour, notwithstanding religious beliefs, could be construed as harassment under the disciplinary and grievance procedures.”
As part of the Clearing the Ground Inquiry carried out by Christians in Parliament last year, Dr Richard Scott gave evidence suggesting that the implementation of this guidance is not always applied with consistency, and sometimes with greater restriction on religious belief than envisioned or permitted under the law. In today’s Church Times, the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Trevor Willmott criticises the GMC in a similar way for failing to provide criteria to judge the “appropriateness or otherwise of matters of faith and its relevance to clinical care”, which is a “concern for both society and for individuals”.
I do have sympathy for Dr Scott who all along has wanted to make sure that he is able to talk about faith openly at work in the belief it will be of benefit to his patients. He didn’t cave in and accept the initial offer of a warning, which to some might seem like foolishness, but shows that he cares deeply about standing up for principles that he believes are central to what he does as a doctor. We will probably never know whether the GMC’s assumptions of what happened were correct. Whatever the truth of it all, it has certainly not weakened his resolve. In an interview with GPs magazine The Pulse, Dr Scott said that he will not appeal the warning because of cost, but that he is not intending to change the way he practises medicine either. He told the magazine: “If anything it will make me even more determined to do it. I showed the GMC all the statistics that showed that spiritual care really helps people’s health… Doing God is good for your health. That is the message we tried to get across to the GMC, which they abjectively failed to grasp.”
My biggest fear is that if Dr Scott continues to use the media to fight for his cause rather than drawing a line under the incident and letting the dust settle that he could end up doing further harm to his own and other Christian doctors’ reputations.
We have to bear in mind that Dr Scott is a public servant and that his pay comes from the public finances. He is not freelance and able to practise in any way he might choose. He is required to follow the regulations set out for all doctors whether he agrees with them or not. By working so closely to the boundaries he ran the risk of being seen to think that his views superseded the GMC’s and this is indeed what happened.
In Romans 13 Paul writes:
‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.’
The GMC has not told Dr Scott to do anything that goes against his Christian faith, but rather to respect professional boundaries. There is a place for discussion to be had on where those boundaries lie, but if Dr Scott gives the impression that he has not taken on board the outcome of the GMC’s ruling, to many he will appear arrogant, thinking that he knows better than his professional body.
Jesus tells us not to compromise our faith, but if by our actions we run the risk of bringing our faith into public disrepute, does that really serve our cause well? Christians should all be passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus, but there is a time and a place to do it.
Boldness is a virtue, but so are sensitivity and wisdom. Even when we feel we have been wronged or have something better to offer, we still need to remember this.