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The GMC needs to rethink its anonymous complaints policy

From Julie Norris, partner and head of the regulatory & professional disciplinary defence team at law firm Kingsley Napley LLP

Doctors are right to be concerned about the statistics showing the number of anonymous complaints that result in the launch of GMC disciplinary investigations. It is not the investigation of anonymous complaints per se that is contentious from my point of view (as the GMC points out, a complaint should not automatically be dismissed because the identity of the complainant is unknown). My problem is more that such complaints are not presently dealt with in a wholly different way to complaints made by an identifiable complainant.

Given that few anonymous complaints result in substantive findings against doctors, due in part to the higher likelihood that the complaint will be considered to be baseless or malicious, it beggars belief that there does not exist a triaging process for the early resolution of anonymous complaints so that doctors are not left under the shadow of an investigation for longer than is absolutely necessary. As is widely known and reported here and elsewhere, investigations into the fitness to practise of doctors may last many months and can have a very serious impact on their health and well-being.

Whilst the GMC has stated that is not planning any changes to its investigation processes for these complaints, the statistics show that a review in this area is necessary. Given that 3% of all complaints are now anonymous, that translates as approximately 35 complaints a month in hard number terms - to my mind that is quite a lot, especially given that the GMC admits that this source of complaints is growing. Currently just over a fifth of anonymous complaints lead to a fitness to practise investigation.

As a minimum, complaints made by individuals not willing to share their identity with the regulator should be processed swiftly and closed down early where there is no corroborating or independent evidence of a fitness to practise concern. There are good legal arguments that can be made to prevent cases being brought to a hearing on the basis on uncorroborated anonymous witness evidence alone; all the more reason to dispose of such cases expeditiously. Further radical reform may arguably be necessary to ensure that investigations are not allowed to drift on without consequence to the GMC: consideration might be given to strict time limits for the investigation of anonymous complaints (a similar limitation has been debated for the length of time that criminal suspects can remain on police bail).

Doctors need to be reassured that the GMC is doing all it can to balance public protection whilst at the same time, protecting doctors from spurious, specious or unfounded complaints. Without such reassurance, doctors may well ask whose side the GMC is on.

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Readers' comments (9)

  • An excellent, sensible article, which the GMC will give absolutely zero thought. All doctors are already aware the GMC is not on their side, has not been for a long time, are now more like the Gestapo, with only "patient care" and any "witch hunt" against any doctor (ideally foreign graduate or ethnic minority) their only remit.

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  • Vinci Ho

    (1) It is exactly the argument of remaining annonymous to protect onself if a whistle-blower is to refer to GMC. The chance of this 'complaint' seeing daylight is slim , at least according to this statistics.
    (2) If the whistle-blower decided to disclose identity , my still unanswered question came in: how could GMC protect the public if the whistle-blower fell instead into a FTP proceedings by a counter-allegation or counter-complaint annonymously or non-annonymously ?
    (3) In either case, GMC is to fail its declared duty of protecting the public, bearing in mind it does not belong to anything near to law enforcement or judicial system.

    It is pure bigotry resisting reforms in order to protect an establishment......

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  • Vinci Ho

    Furthermore , the person who makes the complaint can come from different 'backgrounds'. A lone individual has a lot to lose while a person representing an authority or establishment has a lot of 'resources' to play with.
    This 'open door' with no triage policy of GMC complaint system then appears to favour authorities and establishments .
    By that philosophy , GMC's declared first duty can easily turn into protecting authorities and establishments instead. An establishment sheltering other establishments sacrificing individuals is exactly what principles of democracy and social justice want to overturn fundamentally.

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  • There is a further issue here. Malicious communication is a criminal offence. I have seen an anonymous complaint that purported to be whistle-blowing (rather spoiled by some classic conspiracy theory stuff ). Fortunately, the GMC didn't investigate beyond getting statements from the Trust but even that took some time. I believe the GMC should have referred the matter to the police for forensic investigation as a crime under the Malicious Communications Act since the intention was unequivocally to harm the doctor.

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  • The issue is that the GMC is under onstructions from the government to make life as difficult as possible to all doctors so the NHS will collapse and can be sold off to private investors. Once you understand this, all becomes clear.

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  • After a tedious and long process I am out of the clutches of the GMC. The process full of their mistakes and dates wrong which I corrected. Totally unprofessional. After 40 years I had to prove I was not guilty of anything, not the reverse; against all the precepts of Common Law and Magna Carta. It is disgraceful that we put up with this unlawful behaviour. Why do we? We pay up and shut up out of fear or we leave the UK. No mention of thanks in their email for 40 years work and, but for the Grace of God, without any rude letters from the GMC or an investigation. My best friend was investigated and cleared, but 6 months later killed himself; not on the GMC stats then - the tip of the iceberg I suspect. The GMC don't care, it's all about patients, 100%.
    For most of us GMC = KGB or Stasi. What did they do to help me over 40 years? Nothing, just the ever present fear of a letter from them of complaint. Pulse needs to mount a campaign to change this, why has this not already been started? I still file this under the cloak of anonymity; the GMC will relish the fact that I still don't trust them. Enough, we must do something to control and rebalance their power.

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  • @Other healthcare professional 09 Jan 2016 1:37pm this is a simple truth that so many fail to understand. Actually, I feel many refuse to believe it as they're in a state of denial. You hit the nail on the head!

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  • "Carthago delenda est"......

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  • The big problem of the GMC and the MPTS is not only in the length of proceedings, but it does not make sense in its essence: many of these cases are initiated by false or trivial accusations. The GMC builds a castle of paper on anything, leading the verdict of "guilty" for the doctor investigated, no matter. There is not a single honest step in what is done.
    Certainly there must be supervision on doctors; but on what concerning the work it could be done by a disciplinary committee for the scientific part and by the normal Justice if any crime is committed.The MPTS exists only to support itself and those who are working in it, with the connivance of the GMC that increases its power through terror on doctors.
    It is a unique situation in the world and it is unacceptable.

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