The GMC is also recruiting more staff to deal with the rising tide of complaints about general practitioners and hospital doctors. Currently, it can take up to 18 months for a case to come before the council. In some cases, doctors are suspended from their jobs while the allegations against them are investigated.
Sir Donald Irvine, the president of the GMC, said in 1993 there had been 1,000 complaints against doctors, while last year there were 3,000.
However, the reason for the increase in complaints is unclear. One theory is that the relationship between doctors and patients has changed and become more consumer-based, with higher patient expectations. Another possibility is that high-profile cases encourage a climate of complaint. Another suggestion is that professional organisations have become more receptive to whistleblowers and are more likely to investigate their allegations.
In a letter to the latest issue of the British Medical Journal, Sir Donald said: "The council is recruiting more staff to deal with the complaints at the same rate. I recognise, however, that delays can... occur because of the large numbers of cases awaiting hearing. We are not complacent and are looking critically at our processes to see if they can be speeded up without any threat to natural justice. We have taken steps to reduce the time doctors wait for their cases to be heard by the professional conduct committee.
"The committee now sits more frequently and more sessions are planned this year and in 2000.''
Sir Donald's letter was in response to a letter from a doctor, published in the same issue of the BMJ, which said that disciplinary cases were taking an average of 18 months to process. The letter said doctors on short-term contracts who were unable to practise while suspended suffered severe financial losses. Dr Steve Cox, of the Chiltern Postgraduate Medical Centre at Wycombe General Hospital, Buckinghamshire, wrote: "A delay of 18 months for processing complaints seems unacceptable. We fail to see how a delay of more than six months to complete the case can be justified. It is not clear where the bottlenecks in the system are, but we appeal to the profession to ensure they are overcome."
The increase in complaints follows a similar trend in the United States, where some individual state medical licensing boards are receiving 50 complaints against doctors every week. The board in Michigan, which records action taken against doctors on a website, has been recruiting extra staff to deal with backlogs.
Health watchdogs in America estimate that each year 1 per cent of doctors in the US commit negligent actions that merit serious disciplinary action. New research in America shows that the most common complaint against doctors - one in six - was denial of care. Inappropriate care was involved in 14 per cent of cases, while in California, disputes over payments were at the root of one compaint in 10.