Doctors can report patients they believe are unfit to drive without telling them first, under tougher new guidance that comes into force today.
The General Medical Council (GMC) has told GPs they no longer have to seek patients’ consent to contact the authorities, if they do not feel it is “safe or practicable to do so”.
Family doctors are already obliged to inform the DVLA if they believe their patient is medically incapable of safe driving, however this must only take place after exhausting all efforts to persuade patients to make the disclosure themselves.
GPs and families of patients both have key roles in convincing drivers when they need to hang up their keys
Edmund King, president of the AA
The new rules, published today, mean elderly drivers may find themselves banned without having ever discussed their capacity directly with a doctor.
The document comes a month after a government adviser said the system relied too heavily on the honesty of patients and the discretion of GPs and called for a legal, as well as regulatory, duty to inform the DVLA.
The campaign for a so-called “Poppy’s law” follows the death of three-year-old Poppy-Arabella Clarke, who was killed last year by a 73-year-old motorist who had ignored opticians’ warnings not to drive and was not wearing his glasses at the time.
The new GMC guidance states that doctors must still “make every reasonable effort” to persuade patients to contact the DVLA voluntarily, but lists a number of circumstances under which a GP might decide not to raise the subject.
GPs must inform the authorities if they believe there is a “risk of death or serious harm” to others. Doctors are told they must determine if “the benefits to an individual or to society of the disclosure [without consent] must outweigh both the patient’s and the public interest in keeping the information confidential”.
Edmund King, the president of the AA, said: “Rather than forcing older drivers to retake their tests or introducing tough medical tests across the board, we would prefer to see GPs take a more active role in telling their patients they are unfit to drive.
“GPs and families of patients both have key roles in convincing drivers when they need to hang up their keys.”
Dr Barry Parker, an adviser at the medical defence organisation MDDUS, said no doctor wants to act against their patient’s wishes but “confidentiality cannot be absolute”.
He said: “There are situations where a doctor may have to disclose confidential information in order to protect the public interest, even when consent has been refused by the patient.”
Writing in the British Medical Journal last month, Daniel Sokol, a lawyer and campaigner for Poppy’s Law, said many patients lie to avoid the loss of their driving licence.
“They will falsely promise to stop driving, but the chance of the doctor discovering a lie are usually quite slim,” he said.