Complaints against doctors expected to hit new record

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The General Medical Council has said that complaints against doctors would rise to record levels this year as a public loss of confidence in the profession reached crisis point.

Emergency measures to investigate complaints – more lay members and more hearings – were introduced in October to speed up the process, but the crisis is so acute that there is still a backlog of nearly 200 cases to be dealt with. Some 2,300 complaints were made to the GMC up to June this year and more are expected in the next six months. The figure is five per cent up on last year and nearly 100 cases have waited more than a year for a hearing.

It had been hoped that new measures to restore public confidence in doctors would lead to a slowdown in complaints. A series of scandals in the medical profession, including the Harold Shipman murder trial, the disgrace of gynaecologist Richard Neale, and the Alder Hey organ scandal, have prompted a flood of referrals to the GMC from the public, NHS managers and other doctors.

Isabel Nisbet, director of Fitness to Practise at the GMC, said there was no fall off in complaints. "Problems that have been in the woodwork for years and years are now coming to our attention. We expect to be notified much more promptly of a small but steady number of serious concerns," she said.

"We all hope that eventually, with clinical governance of doctors coming on stream, problems will be nipped in the bud and we are working towards that. But, realistically, long-standing problems are going to come to light."

The GMC said a high-profile court case or disciplinary hearing involving a doctor always led to a leap in the number of complaints from the public. It received 501 complaints about doctors, the highest monthly total ever, after the Shipman trial in March last year.

The GMC expects more complaints after the inquiry report into the Bristol babies scandal, in which three doctors were disciplined over botched heart operations, is published next week. A number of disciplinary hearings over alleged clinical misconduct are due in the autumn; these are also expected to spark more public disquiet and more complaints.

Last year the GMC received 4,470 complaints – a 49 per cent rise on 1999. Of these, 1,386 were resolved quickly by the GMC or passed on to the NHS complaints procedure, and 993 were dropped. The crisis led the GMC to appoint an extra 70 lay members to hear cases, with a further 70 to be appointed this month. It expects 400 days to be spent hearing cases this year, more than three times as many as in 1999.

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