The GMC is to roll out changes to how it handles one-off mistakes by GPs and other doctors, after a pilot found full investigations were not needed in 65% of cases.
The regulator said it was able to close 202 of 309 cases that would normally have led to full investigations during the two-year pilot.
By making additional enquiries early on in the process, the GMC aims to cut unnecessary investigations that can cause ‘additional stress’ to doctors who have never had a complaint made about them before.
The changes it is bringing in involve gathering information – such as medical records and input from independent experts – soon after a complaint or referral is made.
It will also consider advice from doctors’ responsible officers and the doctors themselves in deciding which cases to pursue.
The 309 cases in the two-year pilot were limited to incidents where doctors made one-off errors – and were all cases that would previously have led to full investigations.
Speaking about the results of the pilot, Charlie Massey, chief executive of the GMC, said: ‘Protecting patients is our priority. But opening full investigations unless absolutely necessary is not in the interests of patients or doctors, and causes additional stress and delay.
‘We’ve found that getting more information quickly in certain cases clarifies if there is any ongoing risk to patients, and so whether we need to take action.’
The GMC started cracking down on unnecessary investigations in 2014 when it introduced a provisional enquiry system for many complaints, allowing for more initial questions to be made before launching a full investigation.
The initial enquiry, the GMC said, takes about two months, compared with six months for a full investigation.
Since the new system has been in place, 951 cases have been closed following a provisional enquiry, according to the GMC’s 2018 State of Medical Education and Practice in the UK report.
By 2017, 40% of complaints – not including those that were closed or referred back to employer – were subject to provisional enquiries. Of those, 68% have not required a full investigation.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA chair of council, welcomed the GMC’s new approach to handling complaints made about doctors for the first time, calling it a ‘significant step…towards a fairer system of regulation’.
He said: ‘Being subject to a fitness-to-practise complaint can be an extremely serious and distressing experience for doctors, not least as investigations are all too often delayed and drawn out, even when they result in no further action being taken. To serve the public effectively, the GMC must ensure that the investigations which it rightly conducts are fair and efficient and do not cause unnecessary stress for doctors.’
He added: ‘The GMC’s recent pilot clearly shows that complaints against doctors can be dealt with promptly and effectively without requiring burdensome processes.
‘The decision to implement this approach as common practice is a significant step forward towards a fairer, more proportionate system of regulation, so we welcome today’s announcement.’