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Independents' Day

Negative media coverage partly to blame for GMC complaints doubling

Increased access to the internet and social media and negative media coverage could be behind a huge increase in the number of complaints made against doctors, according to a new study commissioned by the GMC.

The authors of the report said that the dramatic rise in complaints – from 5,168 in 2007 to 10,347 in 2012 –  was due to a complex array of factors, but pointed to the rise of social media as being particularly important.

Researchers at the University of Plymouth found that increased access to online information and shared public forums gave patients a greater degree of ownership over their own health.

Consequently, patients not only had higher expectations of their doctors but were increasingly likely to treat them with ‘less deference than in the past’, according to the report.

Persistently negative media coverage of the medical profession may also be encouraging patients to make ‘me too’ complaints.

While the report noted that there was no direct link between press coverage of high-profile medical cases and ‘spikes’ in complaints traffic, its authors suggested that media portrayal of the medical profession influenced how and why complaints are made.

The researchers said: ‘Despite the absence of a direct causal link between media coverage and complaint incidence in the statistical evidence, the amount of media content focused on the GMC and on fitness-to-practice cases in particular makes a significant contribution to the organisation’s public profile. 

‘Common across all newspapers is a tendency to refer to the GMC and to its role as medical regulator, using a variety of terms such as “watchdog” or “the body that oversees”, but without much explanation of what that role entails. There is also a clear tendency, particularly in the reporting of the Daily Mail, but also in other newspapers, to imply that the GMC is ineffective, incompetent or biased towards doctors.’

While the largest source of complaints was clinical care, researchers noted that there had also been a ‘significant’ increase in complaints relating to doctor/patient communication. However, not all of these additional complaints related to problems that could be dealt with by the GMC.

The report found that the body’s success in raising its own public profile – for example, via the GMC website – meant it increasingly attracted complaints from patients expressing general dissatisfation with ‘something to do with doctors’.

Lead author Dr Julian Archer said that while improved public awareness of the GMC had contributed to the increase in complaints, many of these could not be dealt with because they fell outside the GPC’s remit.

He added: ‘The report also indicated that there is much to do to improve the wider complaint-handling system, so that complaints made by the general public about their doctors are directed to the appropriate authorities.’

Anthony Omo, the GMC’s director of fitness to practice, said in a blog post today that some of the complaints received by the GMC ‘could and should be resolved at a local level’.

He said: ‘Just one in five of these complaints met our criteria for a full investigation in 2012 and this raises important questions for us as a regulator. The main lesson from this research is that while patients and public know who we are, there is not the same understanding about what we do.

‘Making a complaint about a doctor can be stressful and it is important that concerns are raised with the right organisation so patients are not passed from pillar to post. We will continue to work with other organisations to make the complaints process clearer, simpler and less stressful for all involved.’

GMC chief executive Niall Dickson agreed that the rising number of complaints did not reflect falling standards. He said: ‘What this research underlines is that patients are more willing to complain and find it easier to do so. The large number of complaints we receive that are not for us, suggests that the current system is not working as well as it should.

‘The challenge for the GMC and other organisations is to make sure that anyone who has a concern or complaint can find their way to the right organisation to deal with it. For the vast majority of patients and relatives, that will mean local resolution.’

Related images

  • GMC plaque  Ralph Hodgson - online

Readers' comments (13)

  • Vinci Ho

    In other words , many complaints are not about whether the doctor was fit to practise. It was in fact about the system and doctors had been used as the target to complain . So whose fault is it for the system to decline and fail our patients ?
    I bet DoH/NHSE/of course , Agent Hunt are so happy that only GMC needs to deal this mess.

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  • The rot has set in now the GMC are accepting complaints online (I'm not making this up With today's no win no fee culture, patients are now encouraged to escalate issues that would be better dealt with through local mediation yet the government persist on raising expectations far beyond what the NHS is resourced to deliver so I wouldn't be surprised if there are people who now have the GMC's number on speed dial.

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  • So based on the above, expect your GMC fee to escalate in the next few years - exactly like our indemnity fees.

    Over 10k for indemnity and 5k for GMC? I won't be surprised of this happening in 5 year's time.

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  • And don't forget the demise of local complaint mechanisms caused by the reorganisation into NHSE as a contributory factor.

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  • THE DAILY MAIL and other deranged, ranting, foaming, furious, enraged and thuggish papers have also heavily contributed to the GP Workforce crisis. Why don't researchers look into this to confirm what we already know.

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  • I think Doctors should be able to sue patients back and claim for all the harassment and trauma due to unsuccessful complaints.

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  • I have just been on the the GMC link above. Shocking how easy it is for a patient to complain. I am sure not many doctors are aware of this. I agree fee's will raise to reflect this work.

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  • This reflects a general trend against healthcare professionals. Complaints against pharmacists are similarly on the rise, not because there are more bad pharmacists, any more than there are more bad GPs, but, as commented elsewhere, some people like to complain where it is unwarranted. In addition, most concerns from patients, if handled correctly by the appropriate person at the practice, can defuse the whole situation but many do not want to take the complaint to the practice. Sadly, a reflection of the times we live in

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  • I agree with the above comment there has to be a system by means of which doctors can sue patients back for harassment, loss of earnings and all the hassle unnecessarily. ...why is the doctor always to blame and why is the patients always assumed to be right! !!!

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  • the rot set in the GMC is accepting complaints from employment bodies without asking for a detailed rebuff from the accused and putting doctors for degraf=ding time consuming expensive to administer performance tests

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