Dealing with a damaging report at a Fitness to Practise Panel

Daniel sokol

 

Dr Daniel Sokol is a barrister specialising in student appeals and former lecturer in medical ethics.  He frequently represents medical students at university hearings

Few events are more terrifying for medical students than a Fitness to Practise Panel.  The Panel decides whether a student is fit to practise for the purposes of continuing their medical studies.  It can effectively end a student’s ambition of becoming a doctor. 

Often, an Investigating Officer has conducted an investigation into the allegations and compiled a report for the Panel.  If that report is unfavourable to the student, which it usually is (hence the Panel!), the student or the representative must limit the damage caused by the report.  Letting the report go unchallenged will usually result in a poor outcome.

Here are 5 tips on how to defuse an explosive report.

1. Ask for the report’s author to attend the hearing

Many institutions require the Investigating Officer to attend the hearing.  Soon after the start of the hearing, the investigator will summarise the report.  At the end of the summary, you will probably feel ‘on the back foot’.  It is important to ask the investigator questions to bring out the flaws in the report.  More on that later.

If the investigator is absent, it is impossible to ask questions and test the evidence.  This is why, before the hearing, you should ask the investigator to attend.  In the event of non-attendance, you should point out that, despite an invitation to attend, the author is absent and therefore no opportunity exists to ask questions about how he or she came to his conclusions, or why certain aspects were left out of the report, and that this is a disadvantage to you.  Be prepared to explain what sorts of questions you would have asked.

2. Identify the most obvious errors and lead with those

In a recent case of alleged dishonesty, the investigator wrote a damning report for the FtP Panel.  If nothing was done, the student was almost certainly going to be excluded or, at best, suspended.

The report contained several damaging statements.  One was this: 

Jane confirmed in a recent interview that she did not leave the house immediately after the incident [domestic abuse] with her partner in September 2017, as she first told me.’  

The investigator is here pointing out an apparent inconsistency in the student’s account and hinting at dishonesty.

Yet, the transcript of the investigator’s first interview with the student read ‘The incident took place in September 2017.  I stayed in our home for some months afterwards.’  Jane had never told the investigator that she had left the house immediately after the incident.  The investigator’s statement “as she first told me” is factually wrong.

This error was an opportunity to cast doubt on the investigator’s competence.  This has to be done carefully, however, as explained below.

3. Formulate questions carefully

The questions should be short, simple, and contain only one fact.  So, to use the example above:

– Dr Jones, could you turn to page 2 of your report, paragraph 1?

– Sure. 

(pause here to allow the members of the panel to find the document)

– You wrote: “Jane confirmed in a recent interview that she did not leave the house immediately after the incident with her partner, as she first told me.”  Can you see that?

– Yes

– You claim I told you I left the house straight after the incident?

– That’s right.

– You’re quite sure about that?

– Yes

– Have you read the transcripts of our previous interviews?

– Yes

– And you have no reason to believe they are inaccurate?

– No

– Could you turn to the transcript of the first interview, on p.20?

– Go to the second paragraph, starting ‘We ended the relationship in September 2017…’

– Yes

– It reads ‘I stayed in our home for some months (stress those words) afterwards.’  Can you see that?

– Yes

– That’s not consistent with what you’ve written in your report, is it?

Note that the questions are yes/no questions and leave little room for elaboration.  This allows you to be in control.    

A loosely formulated question which allows the investigator to develop a damaging point, or even repeat it, will hurt your case.

4. Don’t let them escape

In the above example, the investigator became defensive and, in a state of panic, added to his answer: “oh, but there’s an e-mail somewhere which suggests you left immediately.”

If you know that is correct, move on to your next strong point.  You do not want to dwell on this.

 If it is wrong, then pursue it as a further opportunity to make the investigator look bad.  Ask him to take you to the e-mail.

The investigator eventually found the e-mail, which suggested no such thing.

5. Be courteous

You can be razor sharp in your questioning, and make the investigator look bad, but you should always be courteous and fair.  Do not say he or she is negligent, or incompetent, or biased.  This risks turning the Panel against you, especially as the investigator may be a colleague of members of the Panel.  The deficiencies in the report should emerge from the questioning.  

However, never decline to ask valid questions because you are worried about offending the investigator.  This will avoid conflict but reduce your prospects of success.

If applied correctly, those tips should help take the sting out of damaging reports.  

Note, however, that the GMC states in its guidance that ‘Medical schools should encourage students to have a supporter or legal representative present at fitness to practice hearingsi.’  Given the stakes, and how nervous you are likely to be, this is wise advice.

———————

 iGeneral Medical Council, Professional Behaviour and Fitness to Practise: Guidance for Medical Schools and their Students, Paragraph 119

 

DECLARATION OF CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Daniel Sokol represents medical students at Fitness to Practise Panels

Leave a Comment