State has left burnt-out, dispirited GPs in the lurch

The British never complain about anything, so why are they making so many complaints about doctors?


Picture the scene. A couple dining at a smart restaurant. They are complaining about everything: the service is bad, the food's awful and why on earth does everything have to come on funny shaped plates?

The waiter approaches, senses a hostile atmosphere, and asks whether everything is all right. "Yes, fine thanks," comes the response. This was, traditionally, the British way: even a waiter would represent a superior order, and we were convulsed by our desire to be respectful. These days, a diner is likely to kick off if the chargrilled vegetables are served at slightly lower than room temperature, as a culture of deference has been replaced by an assertion of the rights of the customer.

It was in this context that yesterday's news of a record number of complaints against doctors was less than surprising. Last year, according to the General Medical Council, there were almost 9,000 complaints against all types of doctors, with GPs accounting for half of the cases of dissatisfaction.

This may lead you to the startling conclusion that medical standards are falling dramatically, but the truth is rather different. The biggest rise in complaints from patients falls in the area of "communication", which can mean anything from a non-British doctor having language problems to an older doctor showing palpable irascibility with someone who has self-diagnosed over the internet.

In all matters medical, I turn to my eminent and highly experienced friend, who, to preserve his anonymity, I shall call Dr G. As far as I am aware, the only complaints against Dr G have been made by his wife, but he feels that these figures expose a crisis of confidence within the medical profession.

This may lead you to the startling conclusion that medical standards are falling dramatically, but the truth is rather different.

"Doctors have been increasingly undermined by legislation from above," he says, "and because the state seems to put so little trust in them, they have become dispirited and the patient-doctor relationship has suffered as a result." He points out that the authorities have made it much easier for the public to complain – "you could almost believe they go looking for trouble," says Dr G – and that expectations of levels of service have greatly risen. "In the past, a patient could be in a waiting room for two hours without raising a complaint," he says, "but now, after 20 minutes, he or she will make a fuss."

We used to go to the doctor's with a complaint; now, we come out with one. Notwithstanding this, Dr G feels there is a general lack of understanding about the particular problems that face the modern doctor. "It is true that some older doctors show a lack of empathy for their patients," he says, "but it's less a question of arrogance than the fact that, after years of being pushed around by people who know nothing about practical medicine, they are just burnt out and fed up."

It is a rather bleak picture, and one that led me to think that perhaps we should have a complaints procedure for doctors, too.

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