It is hard not to take the verdict of the Health Professions Council’s case against Stuart Jones as a warning to medical professionals not to raise criticisms. Even if it was not intended, it is bound to have a chilling effect on whistleblowers.
To recap, the following complaint was made against him:
During the course of your registration as a Clinical Scientist, between 1st March 2009 and 26th October 2010, you:
1. Made disparaging and/or misleading comments on the website forum, “Bad Science” about Dr XY
2. The matter set out in paragraph 1 constitutes misconduct.
3. By reason of that misconduct, your fitness to practise is impaired.
Before the allegations were read, allegation 1 was amended to delete the words “and/or misleading”. To cut a long story short, his comments were found to be disparaging and the panel was of the view that this constituted misconduct and that therefore his fitness to practise was impaired because the misconduct was “not minor”:
In deciding which sanction, if any, to impose in this case, the Panel has considered the submissions of Ms David on behalf of the HPC and Ms Price on behalf of the Registrant, the advice of the Legal Assessor and the HPC indicative sanctions Policy. It has revisited the testimonials submitted to it on behalf of the Registrant. It notes that the primary function of any sanction is to address public safety but that it also has a duty to give appropriate weight to the wider public interest which includes:
• The deterrent effect on other Registrant’s (sic);
• The reputation of the profession concerned; and
• Public confidence in the regulatory process
It has considered the question of which sanction to impose in ascending order of severity. It notes that where a Panel has determined that fitness to practise is impaired, it is not obliged to impose a sanction.
It first considered to take no further action, but decided against this course having regard to the seriousness of misconduct set out above. To dispose of this case by taking no further action would neither reflect the seriousness of misconduct found nor address the public interest considerations referred to above. This misconduct cannot, in the Panels judgement, be categorised as minor.
Having decided that to take no further action would not be appropriate in this case, it next considered the imposition of a Caution Order. In that regard it considered all the criteria set out in the above mentioned indicative sanctions guidance. It notes that this case does not involve any issues in relation to the Registrant’s clinical competence and further notes that the misconduct did not cause any patient harm. The Registrant has apologised for his misconduct, now realises that his actions fell below the standards expected of a registered professional and has shown genuine remorse. Further, it is the Panel’s judgement that the majority of his posts on the Bad Science Forum were not inappropriate and that there is a low risk of reoccurrence of his misconduct.
The panel does not Appear to have read the HPC’s own rules:
Our fitness to practise process is not designed to punish registrants for past mistakes. It is designed to protect the public from those who are not fit to practise. Finding that a registrant’s fitness to practise is ‘impaired’ means that there are concernsabout their ability to practise safely and effectively.
Sometimes registrants make mistakes that they are unlikely to repeat. This means that the registrant’s fitness to practise isunlikely to be impaired. People sometimes make mistakes or have a one-off instance of unprofessional conduct or behaviour.
Our processes do not mean that we will pursue every isolated or minor mistake.
Take particular note of the two emboldened sections in the quotes above. It is clear that the panel regarded his comments as an isolated mistake and therefore going by their own rules no sanction was required – yet they imposed a two year caution order. According to their rules:
… your fitness to practise is likely to be found to be impaired if the evidence shows that you:
– were dishonest, committed fraud or abused someone’s trust;
– exploited a vulnerable person;
– failed to respect service users’ rights to make choices about their own care;
– have health problems which you have not dealt with, and which may affect the safety of service users;
– hid mistakes or tried to block our investigation;
– had an improper relationship with a service user;
– carried out reckless or deliberately harmful acts;
– seriously or persistently failed to meet standards;
– were involved in sexual misconduct or indecency (including any involvement in child pornography);
– have a substance abuse or misuse problem;
– have been violent or displayed threatening behaviour; or
– carried out other, equally serious, activities which affect public confidence in your profession.
The only one of these that comes remotely close to Stuart Jones’ conduct is the last (and even then it has to be asked: do the HPC really regard making sarky comments as “equally serious” as reckless behaviour, having an affair with a client or looking at Kiddy porn?) . But even if it is considered that confidence in his profession is affected, this could only be the case if it was widely known that ‘Jonas’ is a clinical scientist. But this only became the case because the GMC released his name and CFS/ME activists at Phoenix Rising and elsewhere publicised it. So PR and the GMC contributed to affecting public confidence but the findings do not acknowledge this. Why? Medical omérta?
Given that the concerns raised by Stuart Jones about the contents of Dr. Myhill’s website were so serious (and some of the pages have since been amended, removing the medically dubious bits) the take-away message is that if medical professions criticise each other they should choose their words very carefully and never, ever express them in public. Which is a real worry because if any medical professional is giving dangerous advice then the public needs to know.
The nuttier wing of CFS/ME activism has been gunning for Stuart Jones because they regard any criticism of Dr. Myhill as an attack on them. On Phoenix Rising ‘wildcat’ does so – s/he manages to interpret the sub-heading on the masthead of this forum as an attack on CFS/ME sufferers. I defy wildcat or anyone else to find any such attack.
In the long run, they have done their cause no good. CFS/ME sufferers themselves have often felt they had legitimate criticisms of their doctors. They can still make such criticisms of course but now any sympathetic medics whose evidence might have supported them will now have to seriously consider whether they should – since even accurate criticism will have an adverse effect on their career. The CFS/ME militants have made a rod for their own back.