A GP faces a disciplinary hearing for suggesting to a patient that Christianity might help depression

First, acknowledgements: among all the serious and sensible posts that follow my blogs I would like to extend special thanks to “theroadmaster” for standing up for Christian teaching on marriage in his posts following my recent blog about monogamy. Also thanks to “aearon43”, who equally patiently responded to critics of my recent blog about evolution and science lessons. Finally, thanks to “paulsays”, who often disagrees with me but whose posts are always courteous and refer to the issues raised; they are never ad hominem attacks (unlike some, she hints darkly).

Back to today’s blog: headlines last week suggest more targeting of Christians. “GP faces being struck off after telling suicidal patient: Jesus may help you” (the Daily Telegraph); “GP could lose job for telling a patient about God” (Daily Mail). What is this about? It seems that Dr Richard Scott of the Bethesda Medical Centre in Margate faces a disciplinary panel for suggesting to a 24-year-old suicidal male patient: “You might find Christianity offers you something more than your current faith does in this situation.”

This might seem an odd remark to make to a vulnerable patient with mental health issues, but if you read the mission statement of the Bethesda Medical Centre it states: “The six Partners are all practising Christians from a variety of Churches and their faith guides the way in which they view their work and responsibilities to the patients and employees. The Partners feel that the offer of talking to you on spiritual matters is of great benefit. If you do not wish this, that is your right and will not affect your medical care. Please tell the doctor if you do not wish to speak on matters of faith.”

After a normal professional consultation, Dr Scott is clear that he obtained the patient’s permission to raise the Christian faith. He said: “In our conversation I said that personally I had found having faith in Jesus helped me and could help the patient. At no time did the patient indicate that they were offended or that they wanted to stop the discussion. If that had been the case I would have immediately ended the conversation.” Yet the patient was allegedly “very upset” at having his own faith “belittled” and some weeks later his mother made a complaint. The doctor, who was once a medical missionary and who has been practising medicine for 28 years in good standing, was given a formal warning about the incident. Believing himself innocent of the charge against him and not wanting it on his hitherto unblemished record, he appealed so has had to face a disciplinary panel.

At this hearing the patient did not appear because, according to the newspaper report, “he was suffering from anxiety”. Thus Dr Scott was not able to cross-examine him in court about his allegations which the doctor strenuously denies. The case has now been adjourned but the General Medical Council is determined to pursue it.

My own opinion of this is that the GMC is being unnecessarily heavy-handed. It should drop a case with such flimsy allegations. At the very least it is just one man’s word against another. The doctor believes he acted according to the Bethesda mission statement and that he has not infringed the GMC rules which state that doctors are not allowed to impose personal or religious beliefs on patients and, if such issues are raised, it must be done in a “sensitive and appropriate manner”.

One might also ask, why was it the mother, not the patient, who raised the complaint and why did she wait some weeks before doing so? I am not suggesting malice on her part, or a vague wish for compensation. After all, she lives in a culture where complaints about “rights” are now routine. Thus instead of talking to her son and coming to the sensible conclusion that in his agitated state he possibly misread what happened at the consultation and forgot its crucial detail – that he had given the doctor permission to raise the subject – she took the opportunity to make a public fuss. Much time and public money has been wasted and a good doctor’s reputation may still come to grief.

It goes without saying that if you are physically ill you want a competent doctor to attend you. Speaking as a Christian myself, if he/she is both medically competent and a fellow Christian, then so much the better. I recall a consultation with my own GP during a pregnancy in which he told me he did not believe in abortion. He knew I was a Catholic and I knew he was a keen Anglican so no offence was taken. But when you are dealing with a mental health problem the situation is different. Dr Scott works at a Christian medical centre (as the mother would have known) and he believes that drugs and counselling alone, though vital and helpful, cannot bring about a complete cure for depression or suicidal impulses. Christianity, not Islam or Hinduism for instance, is the religion of healing. Only yesterday at Mass, distracting my handicapped daughter with Gospel stories, I was struck by how often I explained a picture with: “This person is very sick and Jesus is making him better.”

The Bethesda Medical Centre says on its website, “Bethesda was a place in Bible (sic) where Christ healed a lame man and means literally ‘house of mercy’.

In this case, mercy needs to be accompanied by justice.