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Complaints process harms doctors' health, says study

GMC investigations and complaints procedures have a serious impact on doctors’ health and affect clinical care, research suggests.

depressed womanThe BMA said proper support must be given to doctors undergoing investigations after the study found those affected experience mental health problems.

Doctors subject to investigation experience high rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, says the study in the online journal BMJ Open.

BMA council chair Mark Porter said the research exposed wider health implications for doctors facing complaints.

‘There are growing concerns over how the complaints process is affecting doctors, with sometimes tragic results,’ he said. ‘Doctors facing complaints are more likely to have poorer health and well-being, including suffering from insomnia or relationship problems.

‘A doctor’s first priority is always to their patient, but we must not ignore the impact that having a complaint made against them, and the subsequent questioning of their professionalism, can have.’

Moderating practice

The study found four out of five of the 7,926 doctors surveyed reported changing the way they treat patients as a result of complaints against themselves or colleagues. 

Dr Porter said rising workloads already meant more stress for doctors and emphasised the importance of proper support for doctors facing complaints procedures.

He added that, although concerns should be investigated properly , the process ‘must be fair and offer adequate protection’ to ensure the system does not cause harm to doctors or patients.

Lead author of the study by Imperial College London, Tom Bourne, said the research showed the regulatory system had unintended consequences that were ‘seriously damaging to doctors’.

He said: ‘The vast majority of doctors referred to the GMC are found to have no case to answer, yet many doctors being investigated show high levels of psychological morbidity and we know this impacts how they treat patients.’

Complaints: key facts

  • In 2013, 8,500 complaints about doctors were made to the GMC and  3,000 were investigated
  • 80 doctors a year are suspended or erased from the medical register
  • 7,926 doctors were surveyed — 49 per cent had faced a complaint, 22.5 per cent had not faced a complaint
  • One in five felt the complaint was a result of victimisation after whistleblowing
  • Four in 10 said they felt bullied during the complaints process
  • One in four had more than a month off work as a result of the complaints process.