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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.