GPs face wave of complaints due to COVID-19 impact on NHS

GPs could be facing a huge wave of complaints due to changes to working practices adopted during the pandemic and delays in access to secondary care, medico-legal experts have warned.

Dr Caroline Fryar, head of advisory services at the MDU
Dr Caroline Fryar, head of advisory services at the MDU

Medical defence organisation the MDU said there was a potential 'ticking time bomb' of 'dissatisfied patients', after it saw a rise in complaints against its members, many of which were because of delays in treatment as a result of the pandemic.

The MDU warned that the government must step in to exempt GPs and practices from the unnecessary stress caused by complaints that result from the unavoidable impact COVID-19 has had on NHS care.

The call comes as GPs hit back at criticism and false claims that they have not been working hard enough during the COVID-19 outbreak. LMCs have stressed that they have been working in line with guidance issued during the pandemic to move to a total triage model and that general practice has never been closed.

Rise in complaints

The MDU said that it had opened over 1,700 complaint and adverse incident case files relating to the period from the start of lockdown to September, some of which had the potential to become clinical negligence claims and GMC investigations.

The defence organisation also warned that it had seen 'a surge' of GMC cases since the regulator restarted investigations in July.

MDU head of advisory services Dr Caroline Fryar said: 'There are a mixture of reasons for the complaints reported to us. Some are due to concerns being raised about GP services, such as not being able to see a GP face to face, while others centre on delays in patients accessing secondary care appointments, which they are raising with GPs.'

Dr Fryar said that overall the case numbers were lower than in previous years, but added that they were 'much higher' than the organisation had been expecting, given that patients generally understood that there had been difficulties for the NHS to act as normal during the pandemic.

GMC investigations

She added: 'The surge we have seen in GMC cases is partly to do with the fact investigations were paused so a backlog has built up. But this also demonstrates that the GMC continued to receive significant numbers of complaints even while its investigations were paused due to the pandemic.'

Because the NHS complaints process was paused during the first peak of the pandemic, there could be 'many more cases waiting in the wings,' Dr Fryar warned.

She said this could leave many GPs and practices facing regulatory investigations or potential claims at a time when they are under intense pressure dealing with the second wave of the pandemic. She added that GPs should seek help from their MDO as soon as they become aware of a potential issue or complaint.

Last month the GMC updated its guidance for investigating complaints against doctors to reflect the 'extraordinary circumstances' of the pandemic.

Problems caused by shortages of staff or PPE, by doctors being forced to work 'outside of normal routines' and distress and emotional trauma will now be taken into account in fitness to practise cases.

The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and mortality rates for individuals from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups will also be recognised, as will the fact doctors have been working with rapidly changing, and sometimes conflicting, guidance.

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