The advice from the General Medical Council (GMC), which comes into effect today, is designed to give doctors confidence to act when they need to and makes clear where they can turn for support.
The guidance, Protecting Children and Young People: the Responsibilities of All Doctors, was produced following a two-year working group chaired by senior family judge Lord Justice Thorpe after hearing evidence from a range of child protection experts.
It comes as a survey by website Netmums, which the GMC commissioned, found that 94 per cent of parents agreed that doctors had a duty to find out if a child was at risk – even when they were only treating adult patients.
Some 1,500 people responded to the survey that looked at their experiences of when their child was taken ill or injured and how they thought doctors should act if they suspected abuse or neglect.
The guidance makes clear that if doctors are treating an adult patient, they must consider whether the patient poses a risk to children or young people.
Doctors must be able to identify risk factors in a patient’s environment that might raise concerns about abuse or neglect.
They must also listen to parents and children, recognise parents’ understanding of their children and keep an open mind about the possible cause of an injury or other sign that may indicate abuse or neglect.
The GMC has also produced a short guide for parents to help them understand what they can expect from their doctor when child protection concerns are raised.
GMC chief executive Niall Dickson said: “Child protection is a difficult area of practice, complicated by uncertainty and often very emotionally challenging.
“Parents and carers need to have full confidence that if there are any issues raised about the safety of their child, their doctor will take the right course of action.
“Part and parcel of this is making sure that doctors communicate properly with both parents and children to convey any concerns they may have.
“Our new guidance will help guide doctors toward making the correct decisions in this challenging but essential area of work.”
Sally Russell, co-founder of Netmums, said: “It’s not surprising to see that almost all who responded to the survey would want their doctor to talk to them immediately if they had any such suspicions.
“It is great to see that the GMC is providing guidance on the crucial issue of child protection, and that it has underlined the importance of being open with parents.”
More than nine out of 10 parents (94 per cent) think doctors have a duty to find out if a child is at risk of abuse or neglect, the Netmums survey found.
A majority (86 per cent) said doctors should take action if they suspected a child was being neglected or abused but had no proof, the survey said.
Of these, more than half felt that doctors should raise child protection concerns with parents and the same proportion felt that doctors should talk to the child.
Almost all of the 1,500 respondents said doctors should take steps to find out whether a child was at risk if they thought the parents were abusing drugs or alcohol.