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Patients get twice as long to complain about their GP

Government plans to reform the NHS complaints procedure will double the length of time open to patients to complain about their GP.

Patients will also be able to take a grievance directly to their primary care trust under the Department of Health proposals.

The GPC has attacked the proposed regulations, which are subject to a three-month consultation, as unnecessary and likely to hinder a satisfactory resolution of complaints.

GPC joint-deputy chair Dr Hamish Meldrum said lengthening the complaint period from six months to a year and enabling patients to bypass their GP could make the process more cumbersome.

'To start inundating trusts with minor complaints may cause problems ­ if patients want the thing resolved the GP has got to know about it,' he said. 'I am not sure what evidence they have got to say six months is not long enough. The longer it is, the more difficult it is to get a satisfactory resolution.'

The reforms would also place responsibility for the second part of the NHS complaints procedure ­ independent review panels after local resolution had failed ­ in the hands of the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection (CHAI).

Dr Hugh Stewart, a medicolegal adviser at the Medical Defence Union, said CHAI could help improve the independent review stage. But he added the MDU was concerned there would be no clinical input on independent review panels. The draft regulations state CHAI must keep a list of lay members.

Dr Peter Ashby, a GP in Streatham, south London, who was threatened with an independent review panel after a verbally abusive patient complained when he removed him from his practice list, said the reforms failed to address the issue of vexatious complaints.

But Dr Gerard Panting, communications and policy director at the Medical Protection Society, said CHAI would not allow spurious or unfounded complaints to reach an independent review panel.

'Having talked to CHAI about this it's quite clear they intend to have a robust attitude. They want to protect health care professionals from becoming embroiled in investigations,' he added.

GMC director of fitness to practise, Paul Philip, said the council wanted to see a single complaints gateway for patients.

Complaints reforms

 · Patients could choose whether to lodge the complaint with their GP or PCT

 · Time limit for making a complaint extended from six months to one year

 · Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection to oversee second stage of complaints process (independent review panels) when complainants are unhappy with local resolution

 · NHS bodies and GPs to work together on complaints which cross over multiple services to produce a single response

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