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82% of GMC investigations lead to no sanction, official figures reveal

Four out of five GMC fitness-to-practise investigations lead to no action being taken by the regulator, according to new figures published today, leading to further calls for the investigations process to be reformed.

The GMC’s annual State of Medical Education and Practice in the UK (SOMEP) report reveals that 2,696 fitness-to-practise investigations were closed in 2014 – but 2,217 (82%) led to no sanctions or warnings being imposed by the regulator.

This represents a slight increase in the number of cases dropped following investigations from the previous two years.

The GPC warned that complaints are being used as ‘weapons’ against GPs, and that the regulator should improve its ‘sifting’ of complaints.

Medical defence organisations said that the GMC’s threshold for triggering an investigation may be ‘too low’, and they have a ‘serious impact… on a doctor’s mental and/or physical health’.

The GMC says it is currently in process of reforming the ‘initial triage process’ so it can more accurately judge which complaints merit an investigation – and therefore avoid any investigations that have little merit.

The SOMEP report showed there were 8,884 complaints launched against doctors in 2014 – a 2.3% decrease compared with the previous year, when 9,093 were made.

But it also found that of the 2,696 cases actually closed, 82% of investigations that led to no sanctions being placed. 

Dr Dean Marshall, a GPC negotiator, said: ‘For a doctor faced with a GMC complaint it can be incredibly stressful – and has a significant impact on their functioning as a doctor… what we need to be better at is sifting out the ones which are clearly not going to go anywhere at the earliest possible stage – along with making sure people don’t use referal to the GMC when it’s not appropriate.

‘I do some work for the GMC, and what I sometimes see is doctors getting referred because of issues, or referral to the GMC being used as a way of managing them rather than because there are clinical concerns about them. It’s used as a weapon, rather than because there is an issue around patient safety.’

Dr Rob Hendry, medical director at the Medical Protection Society, said: ‘We are well aware of the serious impact a GMC investigation can have on a doctor’s mental and/or physical health, and lengthy investigations can put doctors under additional pressures. 

‘While it is appropriate that the GMC investigates and sanctions unacceptable conduct, the high proportion of investigations that are closed with no further action indicates that more emphasis needs to be on effective triaging of complaints, and the current threshold for opening an investigation may be too low.’

Dr Hendry added that the GMC should ‘encourage and promote greater use of local resolution’, and called on practices to offer an ‘effective and robust’ complaints process. 

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the GMC, said: ‘We have made good progress in speeding up our processes and we are proud of what we have achieved in cutting investigation times and increasing the support for doctors under investigation.

‘But it is still not good enough – it is still too legalistic and confrontational, but we need legal changes to reform a system that is slow, outdated and not fit for purpose. The Government has talked long enough about reform – it now needs to get on with it.’

Following the last year’s publication of the GMC’s review of doctors who died by suicide while under GMC investigation, the regulator has since outlined a number of initiatives to improve its fitness-to-practise process to alleviate the stress an investigation can have on a doctor.

This article was updated at 10:00am, 13 January 2016, to reflect that, out of the cases actually closed, 82% led to no sanction or warning