SOCIAL media and negative press coverage of the medical profession are helping to fuel a surge in complaints against doctors, a study by the General Medical Council has found.
Complaints to the GMC by the general public about doctors’ fitness to practise almost doubled from 3,615 in 2007 to 6,154 in 2012.
The dramatic rise prompted the regulator to commission a research team from Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry to investigate the trend. However, the GMC made it clear there was no evidence to suggest the rise was due to falling standards.
Researchers said increasing complaints were a result of “broad cultural changes in society, including changing expectations, nostalgia for a ‘golden age’ of healthcare, and a desire to raise grievances altruistically”.
A culture had developed in which people were now more likely to raise grievances, the researchers noted, with complaints networks and social media making it easier for people to complain. People were more likely to discuss their experiences using forums such as Twitter and Facebook, where information could be easily accessed and exchanged.
Clinical care remains the largest cause of complaints, but there has been a large increase in concerns about doctor-patient communication. Analysis showed a large number of complaints made to the GMC were dropped because they were beyond the regulator’s remit, suggesting there may be problems with the wider complaint handling system and culture.
While attitudes towards the medical profession are “positive overall”, negative press coverage was blamed for “chipping away” at their reputation, resulting in an increased number of people making so-called “me too” complaints to the GMC.
The report also noted that patients now have greater ownership of their health, are better informed, are developing higher expectations and are treating doctors with less deference that in the past.
Lead report author Dr Julian Archer said: “[The report’s findings] show that the forces behind a rise in complaints against doctors are hugely complex and reflect a combination of increased public awareness, media influence, the role of social media technology and wider changes in society.
“We found that while a better awareness of the GMC has a role to play in the increase in complaints, it did not necessarily result in an increase in complaints the GMC were in a position to deal with.”
GMC chief executive Niall Dickson said: “We have no evidence that the rise in complaints against doctors reflects falling standards – what this research underlines is that patients are more willing to complain and find it easier to do so. Doctors too are more willing to raise concerns about their colleagues.
“The challenge for the GMC and other organisations is to make sure that anyone who has a concern or complaint can find their way to the right organisation to deal with it.”
He added that most complaints would be resolved locally and that the large number of complaints that do not fall within the GMC’s remit “suggests the current system is not working as well as it should.”