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The GMC is failing to meet its own deadlines for handling cases against doctors because it does not have enough staff to deal with a surge in complaints.

A report from GMC chief executive Finlay Scott reveals the council is completing only 8 per cent of health assessments of doctors within two months. This compares with a 'service standard' of 100 per cent.

One in four referrals to the interim order panel are also being delayed longer than the standard of one month.

GPs said they were 'appalled' at the hold-ups which meant doctors faced agonisingly long waits before a decision was made in their case.

The problems have been triggered by a near-doubling of 'open' fitness to practise cases over the past 15 months. Some 3,200 cases were open in March, compared with only 1,723 in December 2003.

The GPC said changes to fitness to practise procedures were the main reason for the increase.

Paul Philip, director of fitness to practise at the GMC, said the rise in the number of open cases reflected a more 'robust' investigatory process.

But he said it was a 'real issue' for the GMC to complete investigations quickly and admitted it had not hired enough case examiners to deal with the rising workload.

He said: 'It's not fair to the people complaining or the doctors to have this type of thing hanging over them.'

More case examiners were being recruited and would make 'significant inroads' in the number of open cases, Mr Philip added.

Dr Krishna Korlipara, a GP member of the GMC council, said he was 'very concerned' at the figures.

He said: 'A lot of innocent doctors are going to have to go through long waits. Some doctors have already committed suicide with the pressures.'

Dr Jeff Featherstone, a GP in Liverpool who has just been told he faces a GMC investigation, said doctors felt the council was not 'on their side'.

He said: 'I'm appalled there are 3,000 doctors going through the same procedures as me. I'm still reeling and not sleeping from the shock. It feels very unfair.'

Dr Adrian Hamilton, a GP in Waterlooville, Hampshire, who is facing a complaint from a patient he has never met, had some sympathy with the GMC.

But he added: 'I have no faith in its ability to investigate complaints in a timely and effective manner in terms of the cost to it and the emotional effect on me.'

By Ian Cameron

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