BBC Panorama and BMJ journalist Deborah Cohen’s false claims to be a registered medical doctor

The GMC states it is ‘illegal’ for someone to use ‘any name, title, or description implying that they are registered’ as a medical doctor.

A few weeks ago (27th October) I was taken aback to see a prominent BBC and BMJ health journalist threaten to sue Sara Ryan. Sara has often appeared on the BBC herself to talk about learning disability and autism issues, because her son’s 2013 death in NHS care resulted in a consultant psychiatrist being suspended for a year by the GMC, and the Southern Health Foundation Trust was fined £2 million for ‘serious’ failings which included the death of another patient.

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I had only been regularly following Twitter for a few months, and had not seen anything like this. To me, Sara’s questioning (about Cohen’s article and Panorama programme on the Bawa-Garba case) seemed similar to any reasonably tough questioning by a journalist.

Cohen’s previous training and working as a doctor is part of her journalistic credibility. Last year she won the Healthwatch Journalism Award. On her website she claims the ‘Dr’ title on every page, close to a statement about being ‘medically qualified’ (with no mention of a PhD or an MD). She seems keen to increase her earnings with various activities, as many prominent journalists do:

Dr-MedQ

Consulting

She similarly appears as ‘Dr’ on the website of the Dartington Service Design Lab, an organisational consulting company and charity, of which she is a trustee:

Dartington

After I was unable to find her in the GMC’s medical register, we had this email exchange (edited):

(27th October)

Hi Neil

Where do I claim to be a registered doctor? For transparency I state that I am medically qualified—as in I have a medical degree. I say that in part so people know when I am covering subjects about doctors and patients it avoids allegations of a concealed conflict of interest. I have never said I am registered or I see patients.

Many thanks

(my reply:)

On your website & in the website address…using ‘Dr’ while stating nearby you are ‘medically qualified’ clearly implies you are registered. Unable to find anything about you having an academic doctorate.

https://www.gmc-uk.org/registration-and-licensing/the-medical-register/a-guide-to-the-medical-register/unregistered-medical-practice

How long have you been unregistered & calling yourself ‘Dr’ in this way?

(30th October)

Dear Neil
I have just phoned the GMC for clarification. Many of the senior editors at The BMJ use Dr title as does Michael Mosley, so I was slightly puzzled.

The GMC has confirmed that I am entitled to use Dr—which I do very infrequently—and say I have a medical qualification so long as I don’t saying I am practicing.

I hope this clarifies things

Many thanks

(My reply:)

Dear Ms Cohen

Maybe we can get onto first name terms when you have unblocked me from Twitter (see photos)…!

I don’t agree that Michael Mosley uses ‘Dr’. Although arguably he should clarify given it is part of his website address.

So I can assume that you were using it in the same way on your website when the Bawa Garba BBC website piece was published & the Panorama programme broadcast? And the 2015 fertility programme?

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No further response. It seems clear that Deborah Cohen is falsely claiming to be registered. Her claim that she uses it ‘very infrequently’ would be beside the point, even if it were true. She must know that she uses it all the time on the above websites.

The best way to resolve this is with a complaint to the GMC which I will submit electronically on Monday 3rd December.  (Added 1st December: I have spoken to them today).

I think the public has a right to know when her registration lapsed, and also the content of what she said in her telephone call to them.

Nearly a decade ago I had several conversations with a senior BBC manager who was still angry at Andrew Gilligan’s unprofessional failure to take adequate notes in relation to his ‘sexed up’ claim about the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’.

I hope they regard this as important for the credibility of their health journalism. There is also the issue of the threats to someone who has been seriously let down by state-provided health services. Eight years ago I made a complaint to the BBC after their ‘not fair and open minded’ programme about ADHD became the only Panorama ever to have been fully withdrawn after broadcast. That was also about health [Added 10th December: I should have written ‘neurodevelopmental health’].

(Next piece: BMJ editor-in-chief Dr Fiona Godlee’s comments and further responses)

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About Dr Neil MacFarlane MRCPsych

Independent Psychiatrist providing culturally informed mental health opinion, advice, and a few new facts. Based near London, UK. Main qualifications: BA MBBS MA MRCPsych.

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