Professor Terence Stephenson looks back at our annual conference and outlines his four priorities as new Chair of the General Medical Council.

Our recent conference brought together hundreds of doctors, medical students, patients and educators to discuss the theme of an open, safe and compassionate culture in the medical profession.

Creating a culture in which safe, compassionate care can flourish and where doctors feel empowered to raise concerns whatever the stage of their career, is not something that professional regulation can achieve alone.

We are reaching out to the profession more than ever before and our conference is just part of a conversation happening with doctors right across the UK about what more we can do to help make medical practice more open, safe and compassionate.

It was encouraging to see such spirited and thoughtful discussion in the conference hall and workshops in London, as well as from doctors across the UK on social media.

Terence Stephenson delivers his keynote speech

One of the questions that struck me most was from a doctor in training, who was worried about speaking up when the doctor in question was her own supervisor.

Of course, raising a concern is a daunting prospect for self-confident professionals, let alone doctors at the start of their career who are worried that making a complaint could put that career at risk. But the risks to patients of failing to act must outweigh these concerns.

There are other places doctors in training can go to raise a concern, such as their deaneries or LETBs. If doctors need advice or support about how to take forward concerns then we are here to help – we have a confidential helpline (0161 923 6399) and over 1,000 doctors have used it so far.

Challenges facing the profession

Our conference also gave me the chance to talk about the challenges facing the profession and what I want to achieve as the new Chair of the GMC.

As I take on this important new role, I will continue with regular clinical practice, seeing emergencies and teaching undergraduates and doctors in training on the wards, so that I remain as in touch with the realities of practice and the NHS.

A medical regulator might not be popular but it should be authoritative and respected – prepared to reach out and engage with the profession and not afraid to act where patients are at risk.

But fitness to practise is just one of the GMC’s responsibilities. We are here to protect patients and we achieve this through oversight of all stages of medical education and training, setting professional standards and making sure the doctors on our register are competent and fit to treat patients.

Over the last decade we have made huge changes across all our areas of work to help improve standards of medical practice and better protect patients, but we know there is more we can do.

Priorities for the GMC

Speaking to conference, I outlined our four priorities to help create a more open, safe and compassionate culture in the medical profession:

  • Explore the idea of a national licensing exam, to reassure the public that all new doctors practising in the UK are of a comparable standard and to raise the standard of the PLAB exam to ensure all international medical graduates are safe to practise in the UK.
  • Make our guidance more relevant and useful in clinical practice and find new ways to support doctors faced with difficult ethical and professional decisions.
  • Further develop our medical register to make it more transparent and useful for patients, doctors and employers.
  • Speed up our fitness to practise procedures, reduce the stress of our investigations and better support doctors who have their fitness to practise called into question.

These changes will help us to better protect patients and improve medical practice in the UK, but it would be naive to think that this can be achieved overnight.

However I am determined that we deliver on our priorities to help all doctors provide safe and compassionate care to their patients and empower them to create a more open and transparent culture in wards and practices across the UK.

If we deliver on our reforms, I hope that when doctors are asked ‘what does the GMC do for you?’ they reply ‘the GMC helps me keep my patients safe’.