Historical sexual harassment claims not acted on by doctors’ watchdog

<span>Photograph: Lynne Cameron/PA</span>
Photograph: Lynne Cameron/PA

More than one in 10 sexual harassment complaints against doctors are not investigated by the General Medical Council because of an “arbitary” rule, the Observer can reveal.

According to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, 13% of sexual misconduct complaints made between the years 2017-18 and 2021-22 were closed without investigation because the GMC is prevented from considering alleged incidents more than five years after the event.

As part of the council’s remit to protect patient safety and improve medical education and practice across the UK it investigates any kind of complaint against doctors.

The figures show the GMC refused to investigate 170 complaints relating to sexual assault, attempted rape, and rape in the period analysed. In 22 of those cases the five-year rule was cited. It received 566 sexual harassment complaints in the same period.

Anthony Omo, the GMC’s general counsel and director of fitness to practise, told the Observer: “We can and do waive the five-year rule where there are grave allegations involving sexual assault or rape. In many cases involving sexual allegations, the GMC’s position will be that such serious misconduct is incompatible with continued registration.”

A government consultation in February heard that the five-year-rule was “arbitrary” and “a barrier to public protection” as it allowed doctors who may be guilty of inappropriate behaviour to continue practising. However, despite commitments from the Department of Health and Social Care to scrap the limitation as a “top priority”, no date has been set.

Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper wrote to Sajid Javid – then health secretary – in May 2022, criticising the five-year rule for ignoring how “vulnerable patients will often need months or years to recover medically before they have the strength to report allegations or pursue any action”.

Cooper told the Observer: “It is unacceptable that an arbitrary reporting time limit is allowing potentially dangerous and predatory medical professionals to continue to practise, putting patients’ sexual safety at risk. Ministers must stop dragging their heels and scrap the medical regulator’s five-year rule without any further delay.”

The findings follow renewed debate about why women delay reporting sexual misconduct, after the Metropolitan police launched an investigation into allegations of “non-recent” sexual offences against Russell Brand. “Shame and a fear of not being believed are the most common reasons survivors tell us they do not report, and these feelings can take many years to overcome,” Anne Stebbings, chief executive of Greater Manchester Rape Crisis, said. “When the perpetrator is a colleague, the victim or survivor is aware that any allegation may impact on her career or future career. These concerns can prevent victims from reporting.”

Related: Third of UK medical students get no sexual misconduct training, study finds

Police have not named Brand and there have been no arrests. He has denied previous allegations by a TV programme and newspaper.

For Rose (not her real name), complaining to the GMC was an attempt to prevent her alleged abuser from harming other vulnerable patients. She alleges she was groomed by her consultant more than 20 years ago, while undergoing breast cancer treatment. She claims he was “flirtatious” and that examinations became “increasingly sexualised”, before he tried to make her perform a sex act during an appointment.

“I felt toxic and full of shame,” Rose told the Observer. The consultant later wrote her a letter to say he was “deeply sorry” for his behaviour, and Rose received a compensatory payout. But a disciplinary hearing – which she describes as “traumatic” and where she was made to “feel as if I was mad, that I was a liar” – found in his favour. In the years since, Rose has continued to pursue justice through the GMC. The process has caused her post-traumatic stress, nightmares, and lack of sleep. Complaints she made in 2007 and 2015 about her treatment were not taken forward.

“It’s as if they are saying that what happened to me does not matter,” Rose says. “My life has been upended by professional sexual misconduct of the most abusive kind.”

The FOI request also revealed that 102 complaints were not investigated by the GMC as “issues could not be identified”. In these cases, Omo said, “we will write to the complainant to let them know what information we would need in order to investigate”.

Omo added: “There is no place for any form of sexual assault, harassment or discrimination in the medical profession.

“Our updated professional standards are clear that acting in a sexual way towards patients or colleagues is unacceptable, and set out our zero tolerance of sexual misconduct.”