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Free speech row 'threatens career'

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A junior doctor has been suspended by academic authorities for a month for branding a senior medical establishment figure a "fucking shit" on a web forum.

The trainee surgeon at the centre of the controversy, known to supporters as "Dr Scot Junior", works at Inverness' Raigmore Hospital. He laid the "shit" charge against Professor Dame Carol Black on the professionals-only social network Doctors.net.uk.

As chair of the powerful Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Black has attracted anger from young doctors for her role at the head of the government's Modernising Medical Careers (MMC) fiasco.

The MMC regime has been applied to post-graduate medical training with "the aim of bringing more structure into the career path for doctors and better training towards the very best care for patients". Last year, it meant thousands of newly-qualified junior doctors were unable to find work and hospitals were unable to recruit the staff they needed.

Black also acts as the government's first "Director for Health and Work", running a quango created in 2006 to oversee the Health, Work and Wellbeing Strategy. Widely viewed as an apparatchik of high-ranking NHS managers, she is unpopular among grassroots doctors.

When Professor Elisabeth Paice, dean director of postgraduate medical and dental education at the London Deanery, saw Dr Scot Junior's comment, she reported him to authorities in Scotland. Her opposite number at Highland Deanery, Professor Gillian Needham, immediately suspended the aspiring surgeon.

Contacted for comment, NHS Highland told El Reg: "We do not discuss issues relating to individual members of staff in public and therefore are unable to help you with your story." Needham did not return a call requesting comment.

Last month Paice told the medical magazine Pulse: "No one wishes to curtail doctors' right to free speech. But it is right that, as in any other walk of life, they do so without recourse to unrestrained personal abuse."

A spokeswoman for the London Deanery said today: "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 spokeswoman said Paice made no recommendation as to how the Highland Deanery should react to Dr Scot Jr's posting, and speculated that there may be more to the suspension than publicly known.

Dr Scot Jr's supporters say there isn't. They are worried that the suspension will appear on his permanent record and damage his future employment or promotion prospects. Under the Department of Health's guidelines on suspension, brought in in 2003, doctors should only be barred from work in order:

to protect the interests of patients or other staff; and/or to assist the investigative process when there is a clear risk that the practitioner's presence would impede the gathering of evidence.

The guidlines also state that no doctor should be suspended for more than four weeks. The status of Dr Scot Jr's suspension was clouded when people close to him said he had been reinstated by this NHS Trust, but then resuspended by the Highland Deanery in late August.

The ongoing incident has sparked an online campaign to highlight and safeguard doctors' rights to free speech and making criticism. The vocal anti-establishment wing of the medical blogosphere has adopted the case as a cause célèbre, repeating the original insult with glee and calling on the Highland Deanery to account for its position. A complaint about the suspension has been made to the General Medical Council.

Dr Matt Jameson-Evans, co-chairman of RemedyUK, a 13,000-strong doctors' pressure group formed in response to the MMC debacle, told El Reg that dissent against medical authorities has been building.

"The medical establishment is unregulated and unchallenged. It is a very small group of people making very important decisions about junior doctors' lives.

"The sort of outburst that Dr Scot Junior made is not unprecedented. The feeling is he's been gagged and made an example of... it appears the usual lines of discipline have not been followed."

Doctors have prepared a letter to the Scottish Chief Medical Officer protesting against the suspension. Some 60 doctors have agreed to sign so far. ®

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