Was a doctor really disciplined for sharing his Christian faith?

Sometimes you come across an article in a newspaper that is so wrong – so utterly and completely wrong and unfair, but in a self-satisfied and smug sort of way – that you just want to scream. My neighbours can be grateful that I now have this blog to stop me disturbing their evening with muffled obscenities and the sound of smashing crockery.

The offending article is here. The central claim that Cristina Odone makes is that a GP has been disciplined by the GMC because he ‘suggested to a suicidal patient in August 2010 that religion might do more to help him than medication’. According to Dr Scott:

“The man was depressed, and had left his own faith. So I told him, ‘You may find that Christianity offers you something that your own faith did not.’ His mother complained that I was forcing my religion down his throat.”

Dr Scott is quoted extensively in the article – and never with a hint of anything less than approval. When Ms Odone says that:

“The former missionary doctor and father-of-three believes that Christians must keep their faith “in the closet” or risk punishment”

It is clear that she is sympathetic to that view. Referring to his recent treatment for cancer, Ms Odone says:

What upsets him most is the realisation that it has become dangerous today to express Christian beliefs in the workplace

The idea that Dr Scott is right about this, that it is ‘dangerous’ to express Christian beliefs at work is a standard Telegraph canard. It fits the ‘political correctness gone mad’ narrative so neatly that Telegraph journalists are obviously delighted to take whatever they are told by the Christian Legal Centre and use it unquestioningly. Not even curious about whether there may be two sides to a story. Did it even occur to Ms Odone to wonder whether there was more to the complaint than Dr Scott just ‘suggesting’ that Christianity might have something to offer a patient?

I thought it would be a good idea to look at the actual letter sent to Dr Scott by the GMC Investigation Committee which gives a detail account of its findings. This took nearly 5 minutes of internet research. No doubt Ms Odone is very busy.  However, if she had checked the findings of the Committee she would have realised that her article seriously misrepresents what actually happened.

What has the GMC actually said? 

Ms Odone writes:

“The same council that allows doctors to promote the healing effects of homoeopathy, chiropractic and reiki, also known as palm healing — which are all unsupported by Western, evidence-based medicine but are backed by belief systems — has banned the mere mention of faith and prayer in a consultation”

No it hasn’t. The Investigation Committee specifically says:

‘The Committee does not consider that matters of faith are irrelevant to clinical care, and accepts that there are many circumstances in which spiritual assistance is valuable’

However, the Committee found that Dr Scott was in breach of two paragraphs of the GMC’s supplementary guidance: ‘Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice’. Paragraph 19 says this:

‘You must not impose your beliefs on patients or cause distress by the inappropriate or insensitive expression of religious, poliical or other beliefs or views’

Paragraph 33 says:

‘You must not express to your patients your personal beliefs including political, religious or moral beliefs in ways that exploit their vulnerability or that are likely to cause them distress’

Surely we can all agree that those are reasonable requirements? And can we also agree that the GMC has categorically not ‘banned the mere mention of faith and prayer’.

Was the GMC hearing a Stalinist ‘secret court’?

Dr Scott is not happy with the procedure that was followed at the oral hearing that resulted in his warning:

“From his home in Margate, Kent, Dr Scott said: “It was as if I had stepped into a secret court, with the witness, Patient A, never appearing. He was allowed to give evidence over the telephone, and remained a faceless accuser.”

Patient A was the ‘suicidal’ patient mentioned above whose mother subsequently complained about Dr Scott’s conduct. He was not a faceless accuser. We don’t know who he is because his identity is being protected for obvious reasons of patient confidentiality. But Dr Scott knows who he is – and has met him. He is certainly not faceless. His oral evidence was given by telephone but he had also provided a detailed written statement made a couple of months after the consultation at the heart of the complaint.

Taking evidence over the telephone is obviously less than ideal, but the Investigation Committee did take this into account. Indeed, Patient A was supervised by a GMC legal representative as he gave his evidence and was cross-examined by Dr Scott’s barrister. Noting that there was a direct conflict of evidence between Dr Scott and Patient A, the Committee says:

“Having made due allowance for the fact that Patient A gave his evidence by telephone and not in person, the Committee considers that it was able to obtain a sufficient impression of his truthfulness from the manner in which he gave his evidence and his response to questions. The Committee consider that Patient A gave credible evidence, direct answers and made all due allowances in your favour”

Ms Odone quotes Paul Diamond (Dr Scott’s barrister) as describing the procedure as ‘Stalinist’. Well it wasn’t was it? That’s just silly. As for the next point made in the article:.

This proved, he says, “the GMC’s bias against me — and any doctor who wears his Christian faith on his sleeve”.

No. You may disagree with the decision to allow Patient A to give evidence by telephone and with the decision to prefer (in large part) the evidence of Patient A to that of Dr Scott – but that is not evidence of any bias. As for the suggestion that it shows bias against Christian doctors in general – well Ms Odone does not do Dr Scott or herself any favours by quoting this irrational and hysterical view with seeming approval.

What did Dr Scott actually say to the patient?

Take a look at this extract from the Telegraph’s report:

Dr Scott believes that efforts to eradicate Christianity’s presence in public life are growing. Before the tribunal hearing, he was vilified in the media as a Bible-thumping zealot; that alone, he says, will intimidate other doctors who dare to infuse their medical work with Christian charity.

By upholding this ruling, he believes the GMC has set a precedent, making it a disciplinary offence to bring faith to work.

I’m all in favour of medical work being infused with Christian charity. And many doctors up and down the country bring their faith to work every day and find that it inspires them to do their best for their patients. It would be very wrong if that were to be a disciplinary offence.

So lets look at what the GMC actually found had happened in this case and see whether these claims are sustainable.  Dr Scott disputes those findings (for the most part) but that is beside the point. To judge whether the warning is excessive or unreasonable we have to look at the facts as found, not as Dr Scott asserts them to be.

The consultation with Patient A -who was not one of Dr Scott’s patients and had not previously met him – was made at the request of patient A’s mother who had ‘urgent concerns’ about him.  The Committee’s report does not state what patient A’s religious background was – but does make it clear that it was not Christian.

The Committee found that Dr Scott told Patient A that he was not going to offer any medical help, but that he did have something to offer him which would cure him. He said words to the effect that if the patient did not turn towards Jesus and ‘hand Jesus his suffering’, then Patient A would suffer for the rest of his life. He also said words to the effect that Patient A’s own religion could not offer him any protection and that no other religion in the world could offer Patient A what Jesus could offer him and that ‘the devil haunts people who do not turn to Jesus and hand him their suffering’. Finally the Committee found that Dr Scott said words to the effect that he was not offering Patient A anything else ‘because there is no other answer and that he will keep suffering until he is ready to hand his suffering to Jesus’.

Can anybody look at those findings and seriously claim that this is an example of a doctor who infuses his medical work with ‘Christian charity’? Patient A was a vulnerable man with what would appear to be mental health issues. Are the comments which the Committee found Dr Scott to have made really just an example of someone ‘bringing his faith to work’?

Ms Odone asks ‘What is it about the Christian mindset that causes such hostility in today’s liberal society?’ Well there are lots of Christian mindsets. Some of them can stake a reasonable claim to having been responsible for today’s liberal society. But I wonder if Ms Odone would defend the mindset of a doctor who behaved as the GMC found Dr Scott to have behaved?

Lazy, irresponsible – and in poor taste

We should, of course, keep the persecution of Dr Scott in proportion. He has been given a warning. He has not been struck off and the Committee found that his fitness to practice was not impaired. He just needs to make sure that his desire to share his religious beliefs does not get in the way of the best interests of his patients.

The Telegraph on the other hand – and Cristina Odone in particular – should try to research the facts of a story before gleefully seizing on another example of Christians being ‘persecuted’ in the workplace. This sort of article is lazy and irresponsible. There is real persecution in the world and there are places where expressing your religious belief is genuinely dangerous. Using that sort of language when talking about a doctor being reprimanded for his insensitivity towards a patient is in pretty poor taste.

About Darren Newman

Employment law consultant, trainer, writer and anorak
This entry was posted in Religion in the workplace and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Was a doctor really disciplined for sharing his Christian faith?

  1. Paul Smith says:

    I too am a Christian, and believe my faith can be added value when caring for patients. But I share Darren’s suppressed rage when lazy misreporting distorts the truth and makes the perpetrator look like the victim. There is no excuse for misusing power, no matter how zealous the individual. Let compassion and commonsense rule, not hysterical claims of witchhunts, where none actually exist.

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