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Record number of complaints against doctors - GMC report

Press Release

18 Sep 2012

Complaints about doctors have hit a record high with patients more prepared to raise concerns about their treatment, a General Medical Council (GMC) report says today (18 September).

We're committed to enhancing patient safety and improving the quality of medical care across the UK. We hope this report will shed further light on the issues and challenges facing the medical profession in promoting high quality healthcare across the UK.

Niall Dickson, the Chief Executive of the GMC

The number of complaints to the GMC – which oversees doctors practising medicine in the UK - increased by 23% from 7,153 in 2010 to 8,781 in 2011 - continuing a pattern which has been rising since 2007.

While the rise in complaints does not mean that medical standards are falling, the likelihood that the GMC will investigate a doctor increased from one in 68 in 2010 to one in 64 in 2011.

The findings come in the GMC’s second annual The state of medical education and practice in the UK report which presents a profile of the medical profession over the last year and outlines challenges for the future. The report looks at the changes in the medical profession, the challenges facing doctors at different times in their career and the influence of where they work.

As in the past, most complaints in the last year have come from members of the public - and although many are not about matters which call into question the doctor’s fitness to practise, some are serious and require a full investigation.

Among these complaints there was a significant rise in concerns about how doctors interacted with their patients – allegations about communication increased by 69% and lack of respect rose by 45%.

There has also been a rise, albeit a smaller one, in the number of complaints from medical directors and others holding official positions.

The GMC trends are in keeping with rising complaints across the NHS, and in particular complaints about doctors. However there is no evidence that this points to falling standards of practice and initial analysis suggests that greater expectations, an increased willingness to complain, less tolerance of poor practice within the profession as well media attention for high profile cases may be behind the increase.

The number of doctors falling seriously below the standards expected of them remains relatively small - the GMC took action in more than 500 cases and gave advice in a further 700 – the names of 65 doctors were erased last year from the medical register, in effect permanently removing their right to practise medicine in the UK, a further 93 were suspended.

For the first time today’s report also provides detail on how doctors are more likely to face different types of complaints depending on where they work and the stage of their career. GPs, psychiatrists and surgeons attracted the highest rates of complaints. Men, and in particular older male doctors, were also far more likely to be the subject of complaints than women.

Doctors trained outside the UK and Europe were less likely to be complained about in middle age but more likely to face allegations when they were older.

The GMC said it was working to better understand what was driving the increase in complaints and the nature of the complaints themselves as well as how to provide greater support for doctors over the course of their career.

The GMC is introducing a series of measures to deal with the rise in complaints – this includes:

  • Establishing a 15-strong team of Employer Liaison Advisors who cover the whole of the UK and support medical directors and Responsible Officers in managing concerns about doctors as well as providing advice on issues such as revalidation;
  • Launching a confidential helpline for doctors later this year so they can raise any patient safety concerns they may have with the GMC in confidence;
  • Launching a pilot for a national induction programme for doctors new to the register;
  • Major reforms of its fitness to practise procedures – this includes setting up the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS), piloting initiatives such as meeting with doctors and complainants to speed up investigations and reduce the trauma involved; and
  • Launching a new version of its core guidance Good Medical Practice later this year which sets out the standards that are expected from doctors. The GMC will also publish for the first time Good Medical Practice for patients to make clear what patients should in turn expect from their doctor.

Niall Dickson, Chief Executive, of the General Medical Council, said:

'We are committed to enhancing patient safety and improving the quality of medical care across the UK. Critical to this is the new system of regular checks for all doctors – known as revalidation – which we plan to introduce from the end of this year.

‘We also need to respond to the rising number of complaints about doctors - a pattern seen across healthcare. We are investing more in this area and we are rolling out a package of measures both to protect patients and provide greater support for doctors during the course of their careers.

‘While we do need to develop a better understanding of why complaints to us are rising, we do not believe it reflects falling standards of medical practice. Every day there are millions of interactions between doctors and patients and all the evidence suggests that public trust and confidence in the UK’s doctors remains extremely high.

‘We hope this report will shed further light on the issues and challenges facing the medical profession in promoting high quality healthcare across the UK.’

View The state of medical education and practice in the UK 2012 report.