The Medical Council

What does the Medical Council do?

The Medical Council regulates the medical profession in Ireland in the public interest.

It is the statutory body which inquires into the conduct of registered doctors for alleged misconduct or fitness to practise due to physical or mental disability.

It also manages the medical register and has to satisfy itself as to the suitability of medical education and training, including postgraduate training for doctors.

The Council publishes a detailed guide to ethical behaviour covering a vast range of areas such as confidentiality, abortion, reproductive medicine, industrial action and relationships with patients.

The Medical Council was set up under legislation in 1978 and has 25 members. It is funded by annual payments by doctors, not by the State. Around 15,000 doctors are registered with the Council, of which around 7,000 are working in Ireland.

Who is on the Medical Council?

The Medical Council is a self-regulating body for the medical profession. Most, but not all of the members, are doctors. Three of the members are lay people. Many of the members are elected through a ballot of the country's doctors. Others are nominees of the medical schools and the Health Minister. The term of each Council is for five years.

What type of complaints does the Council deal with?

The Medical Council receives around 200 complaints about doctors each year, mostly from the public. These complaints relate to alleged rudeness, inappropriate behaviour towards patients, drunkenness, misuse of drugs, mental illness, advertising and a range of other matters.

The complaint will usually be made in writing by a patient to the Council. If the Council decides that the complaint comes under its remit, the doctor against whom the complaint has been made will be asked to make an initial response to the claims. The Council's Fitness to Practise Committee (FTPC) will then decide if there are grounds for the holding of a formal inquiry.

Council inquiries are not dissimilar to court cases. All inquiries are currently held in private. Around 5-6 members of the FTPC will hear the case. The 'prosecution' case will be led by the Registrar of the Medical Council, assisted by a legal team. The 'defence' case will be dealt with by lawyers for the doctor. The person who made the complaint will be called to give evidence under oath and other witnesses for both sides are also likely to be called.

In rare and serious cases, the Council can go to the High Court to have a doctor suspended in the public interest, pending an inquiry.

The Medical Council does not usually deal with complaints of medical malpractice or negligence as these tend to be taken separately by patients in the High Court. However, in recent years, some of these cases have been referred to the Medical Council.

What are the penalties against a doctor found guilty of misconduct or unfit to stay working as a medical practitioner?

The report and finding of an inquiry by the FTPC goes to a full hearing of the Medical Council. If a doctor is found guilty, he or she may be censured, suspended from the medical register for a period or struck off the register. There may also be conditions attached to a doctor being allowed to remain working, for example he may not be allowed prescribe controlled drugs if he has misused these. Or a doctor who was found to be addicted to alcohol may have to undergo treatment and be monitored by a colleague.

The inquiry decisions are made public through notices in the national press and high-profile ones are usually reported in the media.

Can a doctor appeal against a penalty?

If the Medical Council finds against a doctor, the doctor has 21 days in which to appeal the decision in the High Court. If the doctor appeals the decision, the whole case will be reheard in public in the High Court. The patient who made the complaint can not appeal a decision however it would always be open to the patient to take a separate civil action.

New legislation to update the way the Medical Council operates has been proposed by successive governments. For its part, the Council has proposed a system whereby doctors would have to build up a set amount of points every five years to stay on the medical register. These points would be generated through involvement in continuing medical education and peer review and audit. This is to ensure that after doctors qualify, they stay up to date with modern practices and treatments.

In the years ahead, there is likely to be more pressure to have extra members of the public on the Council and to allow for some inquiries to be held in public, for greater openness and transparency.

How can I contact the Medical Council?

You can contact the Medical Council at Lynn house, Portobello Court, Lower Rathmines Road, Dublin 6. The telephone number is Dublin 4965588.

The Medical Council web address for more information is:

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