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Tuesday, 1 August, 2000, 23:28 GMT 00:28 UK
More flak for GMC
The General Medical Council is criticised for the way it handles complaints
The General Medical Council (GMC) has been severely criticised for the way it handles complaints against doctors.

The attack will intensify growing concern that the council is failing to effectively police the medical profession.

A report by the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) says that the current procedures are confusing, inconsistent and lack openness.

It remains difficult to demonstrate that all doctors in all cases are treated fairly

Policy Studies Institute

GMC officials are accused of failing to establish clear criteria for assessing complaints, and of failing to agree a definition of serious professional misconduct.

The report concludes: "In the absence of evidence of consistency and transparency at all stages of the GMC fitness to practise procedures, it remains difficult to demonstrate that all doctors in all cases are treated fairly, although there is no evidence that they are not."

The failure to lay down clear standards, the report says, has led to problems with consistency at all stages of the complaints process.

Long delays

The GMC has attracted much recent criticism for long delays in handling complaints, and for the way it has dealt with a series of high profile cases.

The council allowed serial killer Harold Shipman to continue to practise despite being found guilty of drugs charges.

Richard Neale
The GMC was criticised for its handling of the Richard Neale case

It has also been heavily criticised for not acting sooner to ban Richard Neale.

The North Yorkshire gynaecologist was struck off in Canada in 1985, but allowed to practise in the UK for more than a decade until he was barred last month, having botched surgery on a string of women, and carried out operations without consent.

The British Medical Association also passed a vote of no confidence in the GMC at its annual meeting in June.

The government announced in its NHS Plan last week that a new umbrella organisation would be set up to monitor the work of the council.

The GMC is undergoing radical reform of its structure and workings in a bid to re-establish public confidence.

The study looked at every aspect of the council's processes for handling complaints, from the time an allegation is made to the decision by the Professional Conduct Committee.

It raised concerns that less than half (47%) of complaints assessed by the council's Preliminary Proceedings Committee (PPC)were sent on for a full hearing.

PPC decisions were sometimes difficult to understand, and often not properly explained in the records.

The GMC's two-stage process of screening complains - which pass through a screener before going to the PPC - was also criticised for leading to "unnecessary duplication and delay".

The IPS recommends:

  • allegations of dishonesty, sexual assault, indecency and violence should bypass the first two stages and be sent straight to a full hearing in front of the Professional Conduct Committee (PCC)
  • screeners should give reasons for deciding that a complaint did not amount to serious professional misconduct
The PCC, or full hearing, stage is praised by the report for being more transparent - it is held in public.

But it added: "It is not always clear why it considers some cases to constitute serious professional misconduct and not others.

Dr Simon Fradd
Dr Simon Fradd said he was confident the GMC would reform

"Similarly it is not always clear why some cases are deemed to require more stringent penalties than others."

Lord Patel, a senior GMC spokesman, said: "The report does criticise some aspects of our processes, particularly on consistency and transparency, and offers some challenging recommendations.

"The challenge now is to look urgently at the report's conclusions and take all steps to ensure our procedures are demonstrably fair, objective, transparent and free from discrimination."

Dr Simon Fradd, a senior member of both the British Medical Association and the GMC, said the very fact that the GMC had commissioned the report demonstrated its desire to reform.

"I am confident the GMC takes the flack it is getting extremely seriously and is trying to address its problems.

"It will be for the government and the public to decide whether it is acting quickly enough to reform."

The IPS report was originally commissioned to examine whether the GMC was guilty of racism.

It found no evidence of overt evidence of discrimination against doctors from ethnic minorities, but said the possibility that racism existed could not be ruled out.

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See also:

02 Mar 00 | Health
Doctors turn on the GMC
22 May 00 | Health
Swifter discipline for doctors
09 Feb 00 | Health
GMC promises radical reform
07 Jul 00 | Health
GMC racism 'cannot be ruled out'
01 Jun 00 | Health
Doctors lash 'out of touch' GMC
11 May 00 | Health
BMA: Speed up complaints
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