Complaints about doctors reach record high

 

Complaints about doctors have reached a record high, the General Medical Council (GMC) said.

Since 2009, the number of complaints has soared - and in the last year alone there has been a 23% increase in the number of grievances lodged against doctors, figures suggest.

Last year 8,781 complaints were made compared to 7,153 in 2010, according to the GMC.

One in every 64 doctors is likely to be investigated by the regulator.

The highest number of accusations were made about about men and older doctors, according to the GMC report.

Psychiatrists, GPs and surgeons also attracted the highest level of complaints compared with other specialities.

Almost three quarters of all complaints made were about male doctors and 47% were made about GPs.

Grievances were mostly about treatment plans and investigation skills, but there was also a large number of objections about effective communication and respect for patients.

The number of allegations about doctors' communicating skills have risen by 69% in the last year and complaints about lack of respect rose by 45%.

The GMC, which oversees doctors practising medicine in the UK, said that the rising of objections has increased around the globe and not just in the UK.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the GMC, stressed that the rise in complaints does not mean necessarily that medical standards are falling.

He said that a number of factors could contribute to the figure - including the fact that patients are now more willing to complain about discrepancies than they were in the past, patients have greater expectations of the doctors and within the profession there is less tolerance for poor practice.

"The most stark fact to emerge this year is the rising tide of complaints against doctors," he said.

"But I think more complaints does not necessarily mean worse care. Indeed the evidence is actually about rising levels of satisfaction with medical care across the country.

"We have been trying to understand why this number is going up, and we have a whole series of reasons why it may be.

"Firstly, there is better monitoring of medical practice. Secondly, doctors certainly are more willing to speak out and less willing to tolerate behaviour than they were a generation ago.

"Patient expectations are changing and they are more willing to complain. Allied to this is the digital age in which more information is available for patients.

"In some cases it may mean that local systems of complaints are not working so people are coming to us to complain when they could be dealt with at local level.

"And the profile of the GMC is greater - when we have high profile cases we tend to see more complaints after that."

He said that the revalidation process - which will see doctors skills reassessed every year to ensure they are fit to practise - could also lead to a rise in the number of complaints.

The GMC said it was introducing a series of measures to deal with the rising number of complaints including an induction programme for doctors who are new to the medical register, new guides on good medical practice for both doctors and patients and a new helpline for doctors.

Mr Dickson added: "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."

The report, titled State of Medical Education and Practice in the UK, also shows that the number of female doctors registered to work has reached its highest level - with more than 100,000 registered to practice in the UK.

Dr Mark Porter, chair of council at the British Medical Association (BMA), said: "It is a good thing that patients feel more empowered to raise their concerns, but it is important that there is further research to find out why there has been an increase and the nature of the complaints being made.

"Even though medical standards remain high and the number of complaints is very small, compared to the millions of consultations every year, we should always strive to find ways of improving the quality of care.

"It is essential that the new system of checking doctors' fitness to practice, known as revalidation, does protect patients while also being fair to doctors."

Mike Farrar, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: "We must keep a careful eye on these complaints. A rise may partly be a result of patients rightly being more assertive in voicing dissatisfaction about their care, or it may be something more substantial.

"Employers and individual doctors need to analyse this data and look carefully at the cases where doctors have not met the standards patients expect, and what action they need to take when they fall short.

"Every patient should be given the necessary time to discuss healthcare concerns which can often be complex and upsetting. Worryingly, these figures suggest that this is not always the case."

PA

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