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Almost all GPs have faced a complaint during their career, study finds

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Nearly all GPs have had a complaint lodged against them at some point during their career, a Medical Defence Union (MDU) survey has found. 

The survey of doctors involved almost 300 GPs, of which 97% reported receiving a patient complaint, with the most common reasons being increased waiting times for treatments, delays in accessing screenings and tests, communication issues and online consultations.

The medical indemnity provider said the findings support previous research which found that 77% of GPs were concerned about facing a complaint related to the pandemic, and warned it could ultimately ‘push many doctors to breaking point’ and out of the profession.

The survey found that, for GPs:

  • Nearly half of complaints (49%) were made within the last five years 
  • 46% of complaints were related to an alleged delayed or missed diagnosis, while 19% and 17% focused on an alleged delayed referral and breakdown of communication, respectively
  • 40% of complaints were resolved locally within the individual’s own clinical team 
  • 70% said the complaint had an impact on their professional life while 65% said it had also impacted their personal lives 
  • 80% contacted their medico-defence organisation for support, 76% and 51% respectively also turned to colleagues and family members 

Looking more broadly at all doctors, the survey found that current trainee doctors received more complaints over the last year (38%) than either GPs or consultants – 20% and 21% respectively.

GPs were least likely to face complaints due to treatment complications, with only 5% reporting this, compared to 30% for consultants and 13% for trainee doctors, according to the survey. 

MDU head of advisory services Dr Caroline Fryar said: ‘While all doctors are likely to face a complaint at some point in their career, the pandemic may result in an influx of patient complaints resulting from issues such as delays in diagnosis, treatment and referrals.’

She added that many complaints could become claims for compensation in the years to come, which is ‘worrying’ for doctors.

‘The stress of dealing with complaints and claims far into the future could push many doctors to breaking point. It could lead to an exodus of healthcare professionals at a time when the NHS will be depending on experienced staff to get through the backlog of cases,’ she said.

Another MDU survey in December found that three quarters of GPs aim to continue using remote working practices ‘frequently’ after the Covid-19 pandemic ends.


Patrufini Duffy 11 March, 2021 3:32 pm

Funny – the advert for this page was for acid reflux. Certainly, a nauseating topic. Acid burns. Persecute the carer. That makes complete sense. Going forward, I will code more personality disorders, than actual legitimate issues. You can’t fix an indoctrinated condescending mind, so step aside and refer on. Quickly, and in multiple directions.

John Glasspool 11 March, 2021 9:09 pm

I think as soon as a serious complaint arises the GP should be suspended on full-pay until it is resolved, and fundung given to the practice for a locum. This would speed up the process and also make the DoH weed out a lot of silly ones.

Dylan Summers 12 March, 2021 12:33 pm

I’m confused – I have to respond to a complaint on average once or twice a year, and I don’t think I’m an outlier.

Seems a bit of an understatement to say that “all doctors are likely to face a complaint at some point in their career”!

Katharine Morrison 12 March, 2021 7:05 pm

Dylan, you aren’t an outlier, but the complaint may not have escalated to a hearing, Ombudsman enquiry or litigation. I think that there must be a downside to patients for complaining, because most of what they complain about is wants rather than needs and systemic issues regarding the NHS which won’t be fixed until GPs can actually spend the time they need sorting out problems and they are adequately resourced to do so. I would suggest that any time taken to deal with complaints is directly taken out of clinical time rather than the doctor’s administration, meal or break times (if they even exist) or free time out of the practice and that is fact is included in every letter regarding complaints.