The increase follows growing complaints about general practitioners to family health service authorities, to the Health Service Ombudsman, who received a record number last year, and to community health councils.
Figures from the General Medical Council yesterday show that from an average of just over 1,000 complaints annually in the four years to August 1991, the number rose to 1,300 last year and to 1,612 this year.
The rising trend was attributed by senior GMC members to a mix of reasons, including the Government's Patient's Charter, the growth of greater consumer consciousness and increased public awareness of the right of patients to complain when they were dissatisfied with the standard of their medical care.
Dr Donald Irvine, chairman of the GMC's standards committee, said: 'One of the important elements is that we are a more consumer society. People are better informed and have clearer expectations of their doctors. If you combine that with a tendency in clinical practice to be more explicit, using clinical guidelines and protocols which make clear what normal good practice is, then there are benchmarks against which practice can be tested.'
Sir Robert Kilpatrick, the GMC's president, said he believed that the Government's Patient's Charter, distributed to every household, was also a factor. It stresses that 'every citizen has the right to have any complaint about NHS services - whoever provides them - investigated, and to receive a full and prompt reply'. In addition, Sir Robert said that there was now 'a large number of groups, much better informed about medical matters, who are indicating to the public the various ways in which they can complain'. On top of that, the Government had launched a review of NHS complaints procedures after Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, said they did not 'inspire full confidence from the public, the patients (or) the professionals'.
The surge in complaints has produced a record workload for hearings of the GMC's court-style Professional Conduct Committee: 56 cases were heard last year with a record 28 having to be carried over. 'We are facing something we have not faced before - a backlog in hearings,' Sir Robert said. But there was, he added, no easy way of measuring how far, if at all, the increase in complaints reflected a decline in medical standards.
The GMC can only hear charges that might amount to 'serious professional misconduct'. As a result, 818 of the 1,600 complaints last year had to be turned away. To tackle this, the council has asked the Government to pass legislation that would allow it to deal with broader areas of a doctors' performance besides the narrow definition of 'serious professional misconduct'. Mrs Bottomley's failure to win parliamentary time for legislation this session, however, means such moves will have to wait until at least 1995.
Sir Robert said the number of complaints needed to be kept in perspective. Complaints about NHS services numbered perhaps 20,000 a year, he said, against the 500 million decisions on treatment taken by doctors in a year.