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Revealed: Thousands of complaints against GPs held secretly by the GMC

Exclusive GPs may have multiple complaints against them on file at the GMC without them knowing, finds a Pulse investigation that reveals thousands of closed cases have been stored for further reference by the regulator.

GPs are not informed about the complaints and only four doctors requested details about secret complaints received about them last year.

Pulse discovered that there were 1,010 closed complaints involving 655 GPs in 2012, which the GMC decided were not worthy of full investigation.

These complaints will be held on file for four years, before creating a ‘summary record’ held on file for the rest of the doctor’s career.

GP leaders said that storing the information indefinitely was disproportionate and GPs had a right to know about any complaints made against them if they are not deleted immediately.  

The figures come as a Pulse survey of 518 GPs found growing support for a review of the GMC investigations process. More than two-thirds of GPs (69%) said they believed the GMC should overhaul its investigation process and a quarter (25%) of the GPs investigated said their case took more than a year to resolve, while a further 20% said it took between six months and a year.

Of those investigated, 17% had to seek counselling, while 12% took time off work.

Around one in five GPs (18%) has been the subject of a GMC investigation at some point in their career. All but 13 were cleared without facing any further action.

The BMA set up its own investigation into the impact of patient complaints on doctors, surveying almost all of its members by email on their experience of complaints made to the GMC, managers or others.

This was followed in September last year by the GMC launching an internal review of cases where doctors have committed suicide while under a fitness-to-practise investigation, in an effort to see if it can do more to support vulnerable doctors. This came after it emerged that since 2004 at least 96 doctors have died while facing investigation, although it is not clear how many of these cases involved suicide. The GMC said its review is ‘ongoing’, with its findings to be published in ‘due course’.

Pulse reported last year that more than 4,000 closed complaints were made in 2012, but this is the first time there have been figures about the number of GPs involved, or the tiny numbers who have requested details about them

The complaints are too insignificant for the GMC to investigate, but the regulator keeps them on file to refer to if there are similar complaints made later on.

GPs can apply for information from the regulator on what records are held on them under the Data Protection Act, but only four doctors have ever done this, the regulator told Pulse.

The GMC said that retaining the records was in the ‘public interest’ and records were retained to show what action they had taken.

Dr John Canning, chair of the BMA’s professional fees committee, said GPs should be made aware of all complaints against them held by the GMC.

He said: ‘There have to be very unusual circumstances where there is information held about you that you are not aware of. There should be a principle of nothing being held about you unless you know about it.’

Dr Nick Clements, head of medical services at the Medical Protection Society, said: ‘In an ideal world, if a complaint is completely trivial, one would hope it is deleted.’

But the GMC said that an internal review had shown in 2012 that there was ‘no breach of the data protection requirements in not disclosing closed complaints as a matter of routine’.

It added that the regulator deals with 92% of complaints within 12 months and it is making moves to speed up the fitness-to-practise panel procedures.

Its chief executive Niall Dickson said: ‘We are looking at what more we can do to make our investigations less stressful for both doctors and complainants. A number of the reforms we want to make will require legislation.’

‘We are also meeting with doctors at the end of an investigation to improve how we handle fitness-to-practise cases, better share information and in some cases resolve concerns without the need for a hearing.’

Please note: this was amended at 14:00 on 5 March 2014 after the GMC clarified that four doctors requested details under the Data Protection Act in 2013, and not since the policy was introduced in 2004, as was originally stated.

Survey results

Total number answered - 518

Respondents who had been subject of an investigation – 112 (21.5%)

 

How long did the GMC investigation and any subsequent proceedings take, from start to finish?

Total answered - 96

Longer than a year – 25 (25%)

6-12 months – 19 (20%)

3-6 months – 18 (19%)

1-3 months - 21 (22%)

Less than a month - 14 (14.5%)

 

How was the complaint resolved?

Total answered - 112

No further action - 99 (88%)

GMC issued a warning or undertaking - 5 (4.5%)

Case was referred to fitness-to-practice hearing - 8 (7.14%)

 

Which of the following, if any, did the GMC complaint prompt you to do?

Total answered - 95

Take time off work - 7

Self medicate - 6

Seek counseling - 16

Reduce your working hours - 11

Stop working as a GP - 6

 

Should the GMC review its investigations processes?

Total answered – 394

Yes – 272 (69%)

No – 20 (5%)

Don’t know – 102 (26%)

 

About the survey: Pulse launched this survey of readers on 21 January 2013, collating responses using the SurveyMonkey tool. The 28 questions asked covered a wide range of GP topics, to avoid selection bias on any one issue. The survey was advertised to readers via our website and email newsletters, with a prize draw for a Samsung HD TV as an incentive to complete the survey.

As part of the survey, respondents were asked to specify their job title. A small number of non-GPs were screened out to analyse the results for this question. These questions were answered by 518 GPs.

 

Readers' comments (14)

  • I think grass roots doctors are becoming increasingly concerned about the behaviour of the GMC. This has come to light through a series of unethical practices such as treatment of doctors in fitness to practice allegations and lax attitude to personal data. Good Medical Practice grown disproportionately to a gargantuan behemoth full of traps for the unwary and sadly this organisation has developed a ingrained culture that feels it is above the law. However, it's almost impossible for ordinary doctors to hold it to account because they are so powerful. There is a serious problem if the GMC need to put one in five of us through the mill to find a very small number of poor performers. A better way would be to hand over responsibility for doctors to the law courts so that true democratic and legal principles are tested rather than the current quasi-judicial process.

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  • "GPs can apply for information from the regulator on what records are held on them under the Data Protection Act, but only four doctors have ever done this, the regulator told Pulse."

    I think ALL us doctors should do this, en masse.

    Then the GMC might think twice about not routinely disclosing this info to relevant clinicians.

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  • If the GMC hold details of unproven or malicious complaints about me which do not require any further action I would rather not know. If they have genuine concerns about me I definitely want to know!
    For goodness sake, we complain that they give us an unnecessarily hard time and then complain when they don't.
    80% if us have nothing to worry about!

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  • The very fact that most Drs are unaware the GMC retains this material and that the GMC changed its data processing means they may well be in breach of the Data Protection Act

    The Data Controller must take reasonable steps to ensure data subjects are aware of any material change in data processing.

    Does the Information Commissioner know?

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  • In my own experience, defamatory misinformation was given to NCAS about me. I learned about this when action was taken against me by my employers, through a FOIA request.

    The fact that every letter from NCAS to my employer strongly recommended that they discuss the issues with me (which they never did) may be grounds for action against my employer; but it's cold comfort.

    I would recommend that every doctor regularly ask (via a FOIA request) both NCAS and GMC what, if any, information is held by them. I'm not sure how frequently - perhaps every five years (?aligned with revalidation) if you have no cause for concern; and ever two to three years if you have a cause for concern.

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  • What does the ICO say?

    What do the courts say?

    Holding information which is unproven poerhaps even libellous as evidence for the future is not justice.

    They should remember they have a quasi-judicial role.

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  • The GMC is effectively above the law, they can create new precedent without any oversight.
    Thats always the risk with quangos

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  • some patients are malicious - it is a fact

    it is simply not fair that someone can make malicious complaints about doctors - those details recorded indefinitely with potential reputational and financial loss to the doctor and no re-course for the doctor.

    it happens - remember Dr Thompson vs Bibi Giles. the poor doctors' reputation was dragged through the mud.

    why don't our representatives do anything to protect our rights ???

    the GMC needs to be reformed - the BMA should be leading on this but I guess it is too much effort for them as they are worried it might hurt the publics' 'feelings'

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  • John Glasspool

    The GMC is not fit for purpose and has not been so for some time. Remember the case of Prof Meadow and the witch hunt for him? Also the more recent case of the Christian doctor who was criticised and warned by them for bringing religion in to a consultation. He was not given the chance to face his accuser, who was allowed to give evidence over, I think, the phone. There were no independent witnesses and he was found "guilty" because the panel believed the complainant rather than him. It helped kill a friend of mine with a patient- inspired witch hunt. His widow was, last time I asked, still considering taking legal action.
    It should be shut down and replaced with a different body dealing with standards throughout the NHS.
    Why am I not anonymous? The GMC knows my views and in any case, I am leaving Medicine in less than 3months and will be beyond their clutches.

    Why doesn't someone who has lost a loved one during an investigation set up a private prosecution for corporate homicide? Lack of money I guess? I'd like to think the BMA might help out a surviving spouse/civil partner but that would be just toooooo much to ask, wouldn't it?

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  • here's how to request the info from the GMC:
    http://ico.org.uk/for_the_public/official_information

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