Anthony Omo, the GMC’s Director of Fitness to Practise, looks at some of the findings of research from Plymouth University and considers what this means for the GMC.

Complaints about doctors have been on the rise for some time. In 2012 we received more than 8,000 complaints about doctors – a rise of over 100% since 2007. Part of this increase is down to a welcome change in culture where more doctors are speaking up when things go wrong. However over half of all complaints in 2012 came from members of the public.

This increase is not unique to the medical profession: we have seen similar trends across the NHS. However some of the complaints that we receive from the public could and should be resolved at a local level. Just one in five of these complaints met our criteria for a full investigation in 2012 and this raises important questions for us as a regulator.

Our most recent State of Medical Education and Practice report looked in detail for the first time at where complaints about doctors come from. We wanted to understand the reasons behind the rise in complaints, and this week we have published research from Plymouth University that looks at the reasons members of the public might complain about doctors more now than in the past.

The report found that the increase in complaints is at least in part the result of wider social change. However, it also found that the GMC receives more complaints than other similar organisations, and identified some factors unique to the GMC which could have contributed to this rise:

  • The GMC has a higher public profile now than in the past, and there has been significant coverage of poor medical practice in the media.
  • The patient-doctor relationship has changed. Patients are less deferential, better informed and more willing to question the care and treatment that doctors provide.
  • The increase in access to the internet means that it is now easier to find information about the GMC and the complaints process.
  • Patients are still unsure how to make a complaint about poor medical care. This confusion could be driving more people towards long-standing organisations like the GMC who are better known and more recognisable.

For me, the main lesson from this research is that while patients and public know who we are, there is not the same understanding about what we do. Making a complaint about a doctor can be stressful and it is important that concerns are raised with the right organisation so patients are not passed from pillar to post.

We know that there is still more to do to create a quick and simple complaints process that works in the best interests of patients. The challenge for us as a regulator, and the rest of the health service, is to make sure that patients can reach the organisation best able to deal with their concerns as soon as possible.

We have published Patients’ Help, an interactive guide with information about the complaints process, case studies and contacts for support organisations across the UK. We have also launched a guide for patients with information about where to go for advice, and a new online complaints form for patients and the public to make raising concerns quicker and simpler.

This research is the start of a process. We need to understand the reasons patients and the public are raising more concerns about doctors, but it’s not just a challenge for regulators alone. We will continue to work with other organisations to make the complaints process clearer, simpler and less stressful for all involved.