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Doctors’ skill checks need upgrade, says Burnham

26 January 2010

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Doctors should have their skills checked as often as airline pilots to ensure they can perform under pressure as well as the US airline captain who saved his passengers in an emergency landing on the Hudson river off New York, said the health secretary.

Andy Burnham said the airline industry’s safety culture should act as a beacon of good practice that should be applied to medicine. Pilots are assessed around 100 times during their careers.

A new system of appraisals is to be tested by around 3,000 doctors, which will see their skills assessed every five years to ensure they are still competent to practise.

Doctors’ decisions “quite often spell the difference between life and death”, just like Captain Chesley Sullenberger (pictured) who saved all his passengers after his plane apparently collided with a flock of birds.

Through a process called revalidation, doctors will now have to prove their competence every five years. The system was called for during the inquiry into the mass murders of GP Harold Shipman.

It was an anomaly that airline pilots will be assessed about 100 times during their careers, but doctors have no formal assessment of their competence or performance from the point of entering practice to retirement, said Mr Burnham.

“Many people will be surprised to hear this, and most would agree this needs to change,” he said.

Stronger assessment will improve safety and boost public trust in doctors, and give doctors the structure to develop and improve their skills, he said.

Copyright © Press Association 2010

Department of Health