Dr Martin Scurr hits out at the General Medical Council

General Medical Clowns: They’re supposed to police our doctors but another scandal, expert DR MARTIN SCURR hits out at the GMC

  • Department of Health launched inquiry to check the backgrounds of doctors
  • No fewer than 3,000 foreign doctors in the NHS are being urgently re-examined
  • The rigorous oversight of qualifications should be at the absolute core of GMC 

Some years ago I had a pregnant patient who was also under the care of a plastic surgeon with a tendency to range far beyond his area of supposed expertise.

He decided that my patient had a thyroid condition and should undergo a scan using radioactive isotopes to determine the problem.

Thankfully, she told me. I was appalled, not least because the concentrated radioactive material used in such a test could be highly damaging to her unborn child.

I could not believe any reputable doctor would have come up with such a dangerous proposal, so I decided to investigate his credentials.

Dr Martin Scurr writes on the current state of affairs surrounding the General Medical Council that recently fell under further scrutiny after not checking the documentation of ‘psychiatrist’ Zholia Alemi. (Stock image)

He hadn’t studied or trained in the UK, and I discovered that he did not have a PhD from Oxford University, as he claimed, nor was he a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Deeply concerned about the potential for gross malpractice, I rang the General Medical Council, the supposed guardian of professional standards in medicine.


To my amazement, the GMC wasn’t interested. 

Indeed, I was treated with deep hostility for daring to question the surgeon’s credentials. 

The Council not only said that it would refuse to investigate, but also warned me to be careful about undermining a colleague.

Zholia Alemi, believed to be of Iranian extraction, was employed in the NHS for 22 years without any medical qualifications and no one at the GMC checked whether Ms Alemi’s documentation was genuine

Here was I, the whistleblower — worried about my patient and any others being treated by a doctor who did not possess the qualifications he claimed — but I was being made to feel as if I was in the wrong.

It was a Kafkaesque saga and one of a number of episodes in more than 40 years as a medical practitioner that have provided me with an insight into the GMC’s profound flaws.

So I was saddened — but not surprised — to have my disillusionment dramatically reinforced this week by a new scandal linked to the watchdog.

As the Mail reported yesterday, ‘psychiatrist’ Zholia Alemi, believed to be of Iranian extraction, was employed in the NHS for 22 years without any medical qualifications.

Unbelievably, no one at the GMC, which is responsible for vetting foreign doctors, had checked whether Ms Alemi’s documentation was genuine.

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This shameful negligence meant the bogus psychiatrist was able to carry on working for decades, perhaps putting patients’ lives and mental health at severe risk.

As a measure of the seriousness of the case, the Department of Health has launched an inquiry and set up an emergency hotline, while the backgrounds of no fewer than 3,000 foreign doctors in the NHS are being urgently re-examined.

This is the job the GMC should have done properly in the first place.

I am certain Ms Alemi’s case is far from unique, given the GMC’s chronic weaknesses. 

The rigorous oversight of qualifications should be at the absolute core of its work, but I am afraid the GMC has badly lost its sense of purpose.

Like so many quangos, it has become an expensive, bloated talking shop, so bogged down in bureaucratic initiatives and the protection of vested interests that it cannot focus properly on its key duties. 

I do not know a single doctor who holds the GMC in high regard.

The central problem, I believe, is that the GMC is driven by a determination to uphold the reputation of the profession at all costs, rather than improve the quality of patient care by stringent policing methods.

It explains why you will hardly ever hear a GMC representative expressing concern about the loss of the GPs’ out-of-hours service over the past 20 years, or the NHS’s poor cancer survival rates compared to other European nations.

It is also why the GMC reacts so aggressively to the least criticism by doctors of its work.


Fearful of repercussions, few practitioners are willing to speak out about its flaws. And in this climate of censorship, warped priorities prevail.

Far worse was the case of Dr Harold Shipman, a murderer whom the GMC could have stopped

The GMC’s defensive posturing over the profession’s image means the Council is far harsher about doctors’ moral misconduct — drink-driving or relationships with patients, for example — than it is about the inadequacy of treatment or the integrity of qualifications.

I think the GMC’s approach is wrong and counter-productive. What really concerns the public is quality of care. 

Nothing does more harm to the medical profession than incidences of abuse — like that of ‘Dr’ Alemi.

Of course, far worse was the case of Dr Harold Shipman, a murderer whom I believe the GMC could have stopped before his killing spree began.

In 1975, Shipman was arrested and convicted of forging prescriptions for pethidine — a controlled drug which is strictly regulated — for his own use.

He was fined £600 and required to attend a drug rehabilitation clinic, but he was not struck off the medical register by the GMC.

Later, using the same method of writing out false prescriptions, Shipman stockpiled a vast arsenal of morphine with which he is believed to have murdered up to 250 patients.

My own practice has yielded other examples of the GMC’s ineptitude. I had a patient who kept inexplicably collapsing and on the third occasion this happened, I visited her home, where she was lying unconscious on the floor.

The General Medical Council is the public body overseeing patient care and ensuring proper standards in the practice of medicine 

On searching her bathroom, I found a large store of Tenuate Dospan, an extreme weight- loss drug linked to addiction, heart attacks and strokes.

This appeared to be the cause of my patient’s problems, so I asked her family where the drug had been obtained.

‘From a private doctor in North London,’ I was told. He was apparently writing prescriptions at £20 a go for the pills.


Again I complained to the GMC. Once more, my concern was dismissed with aggressive contempt and no follow up. In effect, I was warned to mind what I said.

It was the same negative story when I was the chairman of the ethics committee at a London hospital and dealing with a major ethics dilemma involving the hospital directors, with far-reaching implications for the patients.

When I turned to the GMC for advice — it has an ethics committee — I was informed that I was on my own.

It is not as if the organisation does not have the resources to provide proper support and uphold standards.

When I started as a doctor in the Seventies, I paid £25 a year to an organisation run by a few officials. 

Today I pay hundreds of pounds annually in fees to prop up a sprawling bureaucracy that last year spent £99 million, had total reserves of £80 million and employed 1,135 staff.

Yet the GMC cannot even do the basics properly. It employs 23 officers in ‘communications’ and 55 in ‘external relations’. 

No fewer than 28 employees earn more than £100,000 a year, and, according to the last annual report, seven of them are on over £180,000 a year.

The same report reveals, in typical jargonese, that the GMC had ‘created a Policy Leadership Group to provide a collective vision for GMC policy in the context of our corporate strategy’.

The GMC also boasted of its plans to establish a ‘Strategy and Policy Directorate’ and a ‘Communications and Engagement Directorate’ to ‘strengthen engagement with all key interest groups’.

Little wonder one ex-GMC employee has described ‘tons of over-the-top bureaucracy . . . and lots of energy going into maintaining fiefdoms. Senior management was focused on one-upmanship and petty run-ins’.

It is exactly that culture which has led the GMC to lose its way so badly — and it is hugely detrimental to patient care.

Who is watching the watchdog? Why has it got away with presiding over scandal after scandal? 

Isn’t it time the GMC is opened to scrutiny, not least because patients’ lives may be at stake?


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