Complaints against doctors have soared by almost 40 percent in just three years, according to official figures.The number of complaints to the General Medical Council (GMC) – which has the power to strike doctors off the medical register – has hit a record high, with more than 7,100 last year.
Patients’ groups said the figures were a “devastating insight” into a lack of public confidence in the health service, with more and more people feeling so alarmed by the behaviour of those treating them that they had asked regulators to investigate.
The watchdog found that among all groups of doctors, GPs, psychiatrists and surgeons attracted the highest rates of complaints.
The grievances covered allegations of medical failings but also rudeness and sexual misbehaviour.
A second set of figures, from the NHS’s in-house complaints unit, the National Clinical Assessment Authority (NCAA) also showed that the older a doctor was, the more likely they were to be referred to medical authorities because of concerns.
Referrals to regulators were just the tip of the iceberg – for each complaint lodged with the GMC, six more were made to local health services, with more than 43,000 such reports last year.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “I think we have got a huge problem with falling public confidence in the health service; these findings are a devastating insight, and they mirror our own experience as a charity, with increasing numbers of people calling us because they do not know where to turn.”
Mrs Murphy said many members of the public felt doctors were still inclined to defend each other, rather than to admit patients had been let down.
The figures show the number struck off the medical register has also risen over three years, but by just 18 per cent.
However, many cases which end up with a doctor being removed from the register take far longer than a year to be investigated, meaning that it is too early to know whether the increase in complaints will mean to record numbers of doctors being struck off.
Last year 92 doctors were erased from the register, while 106 were given a suspension of up to a year.
The dramatic rise in the number of complaints follows a period in which pay for doctors has risen substantially, while workload fell.
GP income rose by more than 50 percent in the three years ending in 2006, with average earnings now around £105,000 per year.
At the same time, nine out of ten family doctors stopped providing care at evenings and weekends – reducing their workload by an average of seven hours a week.
A new contract for hospital consultants increased pay by 27 per cent over the same period, with average earnings now at £118,000, while working hours fell, in an attempt to meet European rules limiting the number of hours worked per week.
Niall Dickson, GMC chief executive said: “I don’t regard these findings as a cause for despair. I don’t think there is evidence that standards are falling, I think in some ways the system is getting better at identifying problems, and doctors are more willing to identify colleagues who are not performing well.”
He said that despite a “rising tide” of complaints from members of the public, surveys on the NHS suggested overall satisfaction remained high.
Some complaints were closed quickly, because regulators felt they were not suitable for investigation, either because they were not felt to be serious enough, or related to matters outside the GMC’s remit.
Of those which went on to full investigation, 60 per cent were complaints about medical care, with allegations about misdiagnosis and substandard treatment.
Another 26 per cent concerned respect and communication with patients, including accusations of verbal abuse, failing to listen to patients and basic rudeness.
Separate figures held by NCAA – an organisation set up a decade ago, in an attempt to resolve concerns about doctors more quickly, by retraining some, while referring others for investigation – show that older doctors were the most likely to attract complaints.
Those above the age of 60 were seven times more likely than those below the age of 40 to be referred to the NCAA.
The rate among those in their 50s was four times that of those below the age of 40.
Male doctors were far more likely than women to be the subject of such a complaint – with almost three times the chance of referral to the organisation, according to the figures, which cover the eight years ending last year.