Twenty-eight British doctors suffering from mental health problems, or drug and alcohol addictions, committed suicide while under investigation for malpractice between 2005 and 2013, a new report has revealed.
The findings, laid out in an independent report commissioned by the General Medical Council (GMC), called into question the healthcare offered to medical professionals and demanded the Department of Health, NHS England and devolved administrations set up a National Support Service for doctors.
A leading GP said she had seen the number of patients at her service for sick doctors increase fourfold, and warned that a culture of complaining is "hard-wiring cruelty into the NHS" and increasing pressure on vulnerable doctors and nurses.
Dr Clare Gerada, the medical director of the Practitioner Health Programme, welcomed the report, but said that the GMC, the independent medical standards body, must make its investigations into allegations against doctors "kinder".
'Sick doctors are patients'
Detailing concerns about the lengthy duration of investigations into allegations of malpractice and the nature of correspondence sent to doctors, the report said: "Many still believe the GMC is a process-driven organisation focused on protecting the public, and that the doctor can become marginalised with little interpersonal communication, support or compassion.
"Many commented that the fitness to practise process creates an environment of uncertainty and makes doctors feel that they are judged 'guilty until proven innocent'."
In one suicide case, the report found that a doctor left a note reading: "I am extremely stressed and cannot carry on like this. I hold the GMC responsible for making my condition worse with no offer of help."
Gerada said she had spoken to doctors whose investigations had dragged on for as long as five years, while they lost their families, homes and livelihoods, and who described the process as "death by 1,000 arrows, as bad as getting a diagnosis of cancer".
She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Having a mental illness should not mean that you are treated like a criminal.
"Sick doctors are patients. We are not aliens from outer space that have no feelings. A doctor with a depressive illness is a patient, and you need to afford them the same respect and compassion you would with any other patients."