A record number of doctors were banned from practising medicine last year after being found guilty of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council, the doctors' disciplinary body.
Figures show that 72 doctors were struck off or suspended from the medical register in 2002 compared with 53 in 2001, an increase of 36 per cent.
A further 62 had conditions imposed on their practice or were reprimanded last year, compared with 46 in 2001.
Their offences included botched surgery, fraud, prescribing illegal drugs and taking sexual advantage of patients. The cost of training a doctor is estimated at £200,000 and their collective loss to the NHS amounts to tens of millions of pounds.
The General Medical Council (GMC) said the increase reflected a doubling in the number of panels that hear cases from three to six, to clear a backlog that had built up over many years. Last year the professional conduct committee sat on 651 days compared with 479 days in 2001.
But there was some good news for the beleaguered medical profession. For the first time since 1995, the number of complaints against doctors made to the GMC fell last year to 3,943. That represented a 12.5 per cent drop on the previous year's record high of 4,504 complaints, suggesting that the crisis of confidence sparked by the Bristol babies heart surgery scandal and the Harold Shipman murders may be over.
Anyone can report a doctor to the GMC, including patients, members of the public and other organisations.
When a series of high-profile cases came before the GMC in the late 1990s, including that of Rodney Ledward, the self-styled "fastest gynaecologist in the west" who botched surgery on scores of women, complaints soared.
From an annual average of about 1,000 complaints in 1995, they rose to 3,000 by 1999 and continued to rise to 4,470 in 2000. After hovering at that level for two years the latest figures suggest they may now be starting to come down.
Paul Philip, the GMC's director of fitness to practice, said: "Over the past five years the GMC has experienced a significant rise in the number of complaints received. This resulted in a backlog of cases waiting for hearings. Recognising this, we increased the number of hearings to six a day and the backlog has now been cleared.
"Last year the number of complaints fell for the first time since 1995. We are confident all complaints can now be dealt with in a timely fashion."
The average time taken to assess a complaint was less than seven days, Mr Philip said. Seventy per cent of them were rejected at the preliminary stage for lack of evidence but for those referred to the professional conduct committee for a full hearing the average wait was eight months. Previously, cases could take years to be heard.
Peter Tomlin, chairman of the Suspended Doctors Group, claimed the increase in the numbers being struck off was evidence of doctor bashing. "The GMC has changed its standards completely. They are conducting witch hunts because of the adverse publicity that flowed out of Bristol. They have been panicked."
Dr Tomlin, a former psychiatrist who has campaigned on behalf of suspended doctors for 20 years and claims to have helped 300, said many were left dependent on state benefits after being struck off.
"One or two have gone on to become medical advisers to pharmaceutical companies. I know one who set up a chain of food shops. It's a terrible waste. In terms of the public money invested in these doctors, to put them on the dole is a silly way of doing things," he said.
By Jeremy Laurance
Michael Pembrey, 56, was struck off after performing unnecessary hysterectomies on seven women while working at the Conquest Hospital in East Sussex between 1989 and 1999.
Alun Jones, 61, a GP from Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, was reprimanded after he forged a signature to cash an insurance policy.
Mohannad Al-Fallouji, 51, was struck off for making unprofessional comments to patients at the Pilgrim Hospital, Boston, Lincolnshire.
Bhagat Singh Makkar, 62, a London GP, was struck off for acting as the middle man in the buying of kidneys from live donors for transplant.
Dr David Baillie, 48, a GP in Glasgow, was struck off for molesting 12 young women over eight years. He convinced his victims that they required internal examinations.