The actions of two senior members of the medical establishment are being investigated by authorities for their role in the suspension of a young Scottish doctor who left foul-mouthed criticism of a quango boss on a web message board.
Professor Elisabeth Paice, dean director of postgraduate medical and dental education at the London Deanery, and Professor Gillan Needham, her counterpart at the Highland Deanery in Scotland, have been asked by the General Medical Council's fitness to practice directorate to respond to a complaint their actions were against disciplinary rules.
The probe comes after Rita Pal, a blogging doctor who was involved in the campaign to reinstate the doctor at the centre of the controversy, wrote to the GMC in late August accusing professors Paice and Needham of abuse of power.
A spokeswoman for the London Deanery said it had no comment on the development. Professor Needham's employers in Scotland have refused to discuss the controversy.
Rita Pal said: "The complaint was made for the sole purpose of improving accountability in the medical profession. Senior members of the medical establishment are frequently of the view that they can abuse the powers given to them for their own personal reasons.
"The General Medical Council has a duty to protect fundamental rights of those who are very junior."
The GMC is obliged to consider all complaints, but has now launched a full investigation of the suspension. The investigation is likely to take several months.
Dr Scot Jr, as the suspended surgeon became known online, is a junior surgeon at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. He was barred from working for six weeks during August and September for branding Dame Carol Black "fucking shit" on the medical professionals-only forum Doctors.net.uk.
Black is the chair of the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges, and sits on several powerful medical quangos. She is unpopular among grassroots doctors for her role in the government's Modernising Medical Careers database fiasco, which left thousands of newly-qualified doctors unable to work and thousands of hospital posts unfilled in 2007.
Dr Scot Jr's comment was read by Paice, who reported it to Needham, who runs his deanery. She then had him pulled from work. In the meantime, Dr Scot Jr had asked Doctors.net.uk to remove the comment, which it did.
The GMC Good Medical Practice guidelines (paragraph 47) prohibit doctors from making "malicious and unfounded criticisms of colleagues that may undermine patients' trust in the care or treatment they receive, or in the judgement of those treating them". The authority has stated in the past that the rule refers only to clinical matters, however. Dr Scot Jr's supporters argue that his suspension was therefore illegal.
Speaking to The Reg in September, the London Deanery rejected that argument, saying: "From our point of view it was a very minor incident. [Professor Paice] acted in accordance with the General Medical Council's good practice guidance."
The GMC investigation is likely to centre on whether Dr Scot Jr's profane posting could be interpreted as relating to a clinical matter and whether the actions of Professors Paice and Needham were therefore appropriate under the rules.
The suspension sparked a campaign for rights to free speech and claims that medical professionals would not speak out against senior doctors because of fears for their career.
Dr Matt Jameson-Evans, co-chairman of RemedyUK, a 13,000-strong grassroots doctors' organisation, said the controversy had made Dr Scot Jr fear his career was already over. He said: "There are established ways in this profession of dealing with complaints if patient safety is threatened. This is a much more grey area; we definitely support an investigation of whether there was an abuse of power, and it would appear the GMC is the right body to do that.
"A senior doctor called up a friend of theirs and an instant suspension was levied. It needs to be investigated; the taxpayer paid for six weeks of this doctor not working." ®