Doctors against free speech
Professor Meirion Thomas is an unpopular man. A leading surgeon at the Royal Marsden cancer hospital in London, he is also the author of a series of un-PC articles, in the Daily Mail and elsewhere, that are critical of female doctors, health tourists and, most recently, GPs. These interventions have naturally provoked annoyance from colleagues, and responses from the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and General Practitioners, who have attempted to rebut his arguments.
But Thomas’s critics have recently taken things a worrying step further by launching a petition demanding that he be ‘stopped’ from writing any more ‘damaging articles’ and threatening to report him to the General Medical Council (GMC). The authors of the petition believe he has breached the following articles of the ‘Duties of a Doctor’ guidance that all medics must abide by: ’35) You must work collaboratively with colleagues, respecting their skills and contributions. 36) You must treat colleagues fairly and with respect. 37) You must be aware of how your behaviour may influence others within and outside the team.’ Comments on Twitter suggest that some medics have already jumped the gun and referred him to the GMC already. The comments on the petition, largely from self-declared GPs, are a bloodcurdling array of demands that Thomas face the ‘full force of the GMC’ and be ‘struck off’ for ‘professional libel’.
The fact that so many doctors feel comfortable shopping one of their own to the GMC for, essentially, expressing a divergent political opinion is worrying indeed. The censorious climate of ‘you can’t say that!’ is spreading from the student common room into the professions. What’s more, the allegations are very tenuous. The parts of the GMC guidance that Thomas has allegedly breached clearly refer to behaviour in a professional context – that is, bullying and belittling colleagues at work, not expressing a viewpoint in a national newspaper. However, the GMC does have form in this area, and has previously attempted to ‘regulate doctors’ lives outside medicine’, including their political views. Each time the GMC has attempted to overstep the mark it has been told to get lost; but now some medics seem to want to rehabilitate this desire to clamp down on divergent opinions in the profession and this is deeply troubling.
I would argue that strongly, and sometimes bluntly, expressing your opinion on medical matters, and the political context that surrounds them, is a core duty of being a good clinician. Medics should be an ‘attorney’ for their patients, to paraphrase Rudolf Virchow, a renowned nineteenth-century physician who also got into trouble for expressing his political opinions. Whether you do this from a left-wing viewpoint, like Virchow did, or from a right-wing perspective, like Thomas, should be irrelevant. Telling the truth as you understand it and arguing your point with others is perhaps even more vital in medicine than in any of the other professions – after all, people’s lives are at stake.
Robin Walsh is a trainee doctor at the University of Sheffield.