Fitness to practise enquiries received by the GMC soared from 5,168 in 2007 to 10,347 in 2012.
Enquiries received from members of the public rose from 3,615 to 6,154 over the same period.
Research commissioned by the GMC to investigate the rise found that complaints had increased uniformly across the UK – suggesting ‘wider social trends, rather than localised factors’ were behind it.
Researchers from the University of Plymouth found that complaints received by regulators in other sectors had risen too, but less rapidly than for the GMC.
Social media played key role
A number of factors are behind the sharp rise in complaints about doctors, the researchers suggested, but social media has played a key role.
Social media and the internet have made avenues for pursuing a complaint far easier to access, the researchers said.
Patients are likely to be invited to complain not just by the regulator they complain to, but via patient groups, and updates received via Facebook or Twitter, and have become accustomed to voicing their concerns often publicly online.
‘These factors have contributed to an environment that provides potential complainants with numerous avenues to speak out about negative experiences and more access to information about how to seek redress,’ the researchers said.
Negative media coverage
Negative media attention has also played a key role in driving up complaints. The researchers said the public profile of the medical profession had been damaged by a ‘sustained diet of negative coverage, conforming to a few stereotyped models’.
High-profile cases of medical malpractice and the GMC’s own press strategy have contributed to higher public recognition of the watchdog – meaning patients are more likely to address complaints to it, the research suggested. However, it found that often patients were not aware of the precise role of the GMC and may complain about issues that should have been directed elsewhere.
The erosion of patients’ relationships with specific GPs may have made them more likely to complain, the researchers add.
Changes to provision
‘Changes to provision, particularly in the primary care sector, have impacted upon how patients see their doctors,’ the report says.
A shift to phone consultations and negative coverage of out-of-hours care may have led to worse perceptions of standards of care.
‘There is also a general perception that the nature of the doctor-patient relationship has changed, with patients becoming less deferential, better informed and more willing to question the care they receive,’ the researchers say.