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BMA launches major investigation into impact of patient complaints on doctors

The BMA is launching a major investigation into the psychological effect of rising patient complaints on doctors, in order to assess the repercussions on the profession.

Starting next week, the BMA will survey almost all of its members by email for the first time on their experience of complaints made to the GMC, managers or other sources.

It will also assess the impact of rising complaints on how doctors practice, asking the views of those who have not had any complaint raised against them to see if the fear of complaints is making them practice more defensively.

The study, which is led by the BMA Doctors for Doctors Unit, King’s College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, will survey 119,000 doctors, hoping at least half will respond.

The BMA said the work did not aim to ‘silence patients’, but was designed to look at whether the impact of complaints procedures on doctors was proportionate. The union said if the study unveils any problems with the complaints-handling process the BMA will lobby for it to be changed.

The move comes after both the GMC and the Health Ombudsman reporting rising complaints involving GPs.

Recent statistics from the GMC suggested GPs are increasingly likely to face complaints, with the total number reported to the GMC in 2011 up 23% on 2010, from 7,153 to 8,781.

The BMA said that while the increased number of complaints had not let to more doctors being struck off the medical register, the professional and personal repercussions for doctors were ‘huge’ and not well understood.

BMA Doctors for Doctors Unit head Dr Michael Peters said: ‘Doctors are often terrified about complaints. If a doctor has a complaint made against them, it goes into their psyche. It is not like being an accountant who slips up; it can mean the destruction of a whole person. That is how the doctor perceives it.’

Imperial College professor Tom Bourne said: ‘This survey is the best chance doctors have had to give their views on this system — how it functions, and the impact it has had on them, their colleagues and patients.’

‘The complaints system is supposed to protect patients. Yet, if it is resulting in changes to practice, and more defensive medicine, the impact may be counterproductive and lead to a deterioration in the quality of care.’

GPC chair Dr Laurence Buckman said: ‘GPs are usually very badly affected by complaints.’