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Professional Discipline Solicitor Rosemary Rollason on GMC figures

Recently, the General Medical Council, the regulatory body for the medical profession, published figures relating to the number of complaints it received about Doctors’ professional conduct and performance in the last year. The key news was that in 2010/11, the GMC saw a 23% increase in the number, leading to record complaint levels. The actual number of complaints in 2011 was 8,781, meaning that one in every 64 Doctors was the subject of a complaint to the regulator last year. Furthermore, the GMC’s prediction is that the increase is not levelling out: the first half of 2012 is likely to show another rise, of around 27%.  The GMC is rightly investigating the reasons behind the numbers. GMC Chief Executive, Niall Dickson, speaking to the BBC, said the trend did not necessarily indicate a decline in standards of care.  He pointed out that not only are the public more willing and aware of their right to complain – and the majority of the complaints were from members of the public – but doctors’ themselves are more willing nowadays to speak out against under-performing colleagues. Niall Dickson refers to the GMC’s work in recent years on emphasising in guidance to doctors their own professional responsibility to bring to light issues of concern about their colleagues.

Interestingly, the GMC says the greatest numbers of complaints tend to be against older, male doctors, in the over 55 bracket. 73% of complaints are in fact against male doctors, whereas they only constitute 57% of all registered Doctors. The common subjects of the complaints are varied, but poor communication is a common underlying theme.    

Much of the above news is not unfamiliar – although the current increase is significant, it represents part of a general trend of increasing complaints figures going back a number of years. The medical profession is not alone in this, as the position is the same for most professions, especially those related to healthcare.   

This is a concerning picture: Niall Dickson says that the GMC are probably looking into around 1,200 Doctors at any one time, but only 500 of those are likely ultimately to receive a regulatory sanction. The increasing number of “validated” complaints is a real cause for concern. But the figures must also indicate that the complaints against 700 Doctors are not considered to raise valid concerns. The impact for a doctor of even being referred to his or her regulator for consideration of a complaint should not be underestimated, even when that complaint is ultimately dismissed. It is to be hoped that the current investigations by the GMC shed some light on the reasons for this trend and provoke some wider discussion across the professions.

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