Many people will be dismayed to learn that some doctors in Scotland are earning up to £200,000 for carrying out duties for the police in addition to their normal work.
When services are being cut across the public sector such large payments to individuals who already earn a high salary for their day job must be questioned.
Scottish police forces have paid more than £13 million to doctors on the on-call register over the past three years. In Strathclyde, which paid £10.2 million over the last three years, nine doctors received over £100,000 last year and one individual was paid £261,156 in 2009/10.
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Scotland's new single police force will come into being in April with the potential for savings, one of the main reasons for merging the eight separate forces. A review of the system of retaining and paying police surgeons could not be more timely. Given the scale of these payments, it must now be undertaken as a matter of urgency and with the clear aim of reducing the cost. The new national service expects to pay off 1400 civilian staff at a cost of more than £60m and to recoup the cost of severance packages in salary savings of £40m a year. Despite economies of scale, police officers are likely to have additional duties. No part of the civilian back-up team, including those contracted for particular services, should escape scrutiny.
In most cases the term police surgeon is a misnomer. They are usually neither surgeons nor police force employees but general practitioners who top up their earnings (which average around £89,000 in Scotland) by being on- call for the police and are paid a fee for each call-out on a scale agreed with the British Medical Association.
No-one should begrudge police doctors being properly recompensed for carrying out what are often unpleasant tasks, sometimes in distressing circumstances and at unsocial hours, but the costs are unsustainable. Professionals across the public sector are being required to work more efficiently with fewer colleagues, including in the NHS, where a standstill budget amounts to a cut in real terms. Difficult decisions are being made on everything from the availability of life-saving drugs to the number of teachers in schools and the cost of day centres for the elderly and disabled.
The service provided by police doctors is very much in the front line but it may be that some aspects could be carried out in hospital or by other health professionals. Some forces currently use NHS doctors so the advent of the single service would suggest there should be an examination of the practicalities of extending that system. Could it be that in some instances the doctors contracted by NHS 24 could also be called on by the police? The medical profession and the police service must find a way to reduce costs without causing harm to individuals, infringing human rights or impeding justice.