Complaints by patients to GMC increase by 43%

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Complaints against doctors to the General Medical Council are running at record levels of more than 80 a week, 43 per cent up on a year ago.

Complaints against doctors to the General Medical Council are running at record levels of more than 80 a week, 43 per cent up on a year ago.

The unprecedented rise highlights public disaffection with the medical profession after a string of high-profile cases that have exposed incompetent, arrogant and uncaring doctors - including the GP and serial murderer Harold Shipman, who was convicted in January of killing 15 patients, and the disgraced gynaecologist Richard Neale, who was struck off in July.

Total complaints to the General Medical Council (GMC) are predicted to reach 4,300 by the end of the year, up from 3,000 in 1999. Complaints have risen almost threefold since 1995 and the pace of the rise is accelerating. In addition, the proportion of cases referred for a full hearing has risen sharply.

The GMC is laying on extra disciplinary panels to hear the cases, which will sit throughout the year, but it is struggling to clear the backlog, which stood at 160 earlier this year, one-third of which had waited more than 12 months. One of the chief criticisms of the council is that it is too slow to act against bad doctors.

In 1994 the professional conduct committee sat for 20 weeks. Next year, three panels sitting all year will hear the cases, amounting to 150 sitting weeks.

The figures were disclosed at the launch of the latest stage in the GMC's reform and go some way to explain why it is under fire from the public, the profession and the Government for failing to protect patients and deal fairly with doctors. In July the British Medical Association passed a vote of no confidence in the council.

Yesterday, Sir Donald Irvine, the president, unveiled proposals for increasing laymembership of the council, streamlining its operation and altering the way misconduct hearings are handled.

The favoured option, from among proposals put forward by a working party, would involve scrapping the 104-member council, which has 25 per cent lay members, and replacing it with a ruling board of 15 to 25 people, with about 40 per cent lay membership and a doctor as president. The board would run the GMC but would be backed by a larger conference of 120 to 200 people - half of them lay - which would elect the board. The conference would be chaired by a lay person, giving it a lay majority.

The traditional role of the GMC as prosecutor and judge of accused doctors would be split, with a separate Hearings Agency responsible for determining cases. That would be part of the GMC, but would have a separate staff, management and legal advisers.

Sir Donald said: "The GMC has been criticised for being slow and out of touch. The proposed changes are part of our sweeping programme of reform, which includes clear professional standards for doctors, an education system which produces doctors with the qualities patients expect, regular checks on doctors' performance, and new powers to deal with doctors who fall short of our standards.

"Our reforms make it clear that the patient is at the heart of everything we do. These proposals will enable the GMC to carry out these responsibilities both effectively and fairly."

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