GPs fail to diagnose cancers

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Complaints of wrong diagnoses of cancers are now the most common cause of complaint against family doctors, according to the first detailed analysis of patients' grievances.

One in four complainants alleged a mis-diagnosis of illness, a delay in diagnosis or failure to diagnose, some of which resulted in death. One patient in the survey died from peritonitis after symptoms of a perforated duodenal ulcer were missed by the GP.

The most frequent clinical conditions producing the diagnosis complaint (28 per cent) were cancers of the stomach, bowel, brain and lung. Heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and blood clots accounted for another 28 per cent of this type of complaint.

Poor management or treatment accounted for 14 per cent of complaints including inadequate pain relief prescribed for a dying patient. Delays or failure to refer for treatment or a second opinion were behind 13 per cent of cases. One GP failed to send a patient for a brain scan, delaying diagnosis and treatment for a tumour.

Complaints about mis-diagnoses of cancers have overtaken those of doctors failing to visit as the largest single category of discontent. The survey, by the Medical Defence Union, shows that one in eight complaints referred to delays or failure to visit patients. Rudeness by the GP or a member of staff prompted 10 per cent of complaints.

The MDU analysed 737 complaints against 620 GPs notified to their office in Manchester in one year. Ninety per cent of complaints were dismissed or resolved and 6.5 per cent of GPs (41) had an adverse outcome.