Out-of-hours GP complaints ‘triple’

The number of serious complaints made against doctors providing out-of-hours care has risen dramatically since new contracts were introduced.

Two insurance companies, who provide insurance for nine in ten GPs in England, said they dealt with nearly 300 serious complaints last year.

Patients died in 35 of the cases dealt with by the insurance companies in 2006.

One of the firms told the BBC its cases had tripled since new out-of-hours contracts were introduced in 2004. Figures from the Medical Protection Service show there were nearly a hundred complaints a day last year, up from 30 new complaints a day in 2003.

The Medical Defence Union said it dealt with 182 complaints last year.

Patient groups claim out-of-hours care has become worse since GPs were allowed to opt-out of weekend and overnight cover in 2004.

Since then local health bosses have been responsible for employing private firms or independent doctors’ cooperatives to provide cover.

However, doctors’ groups blame patients’ rising expectations for the surge in complaints.

Laurence Buckman, chairman of the British Medical Association’s GPs committee, said: “It is a fact that patients are annoyed when they cannot see their normal doctor and I think this is more likely to make them complain about the care they receive.

“It does not mean the care is worse, but I do think doctors could improve their communication with patients. We have to remember that these people are often anxious and not well and need to feel reassured.”

The Department of Health maintains the patient experience is “generally positive”.

He said: “The old out-of-hours system was unsustainable, placed an unacceptable burden on GPs and standards were starting to slip.

“If we had not negotiated a new contract, we risked the deterioration and indeed potential collapse of the GP service that has been at the heart of the NHS for nearly sixty years.”

The Liberal Democrats, however, seized on the figures as proof the government is failing in the provision of out-of-hours care and called for an urgent review.

Health spokesman Norman Lamb said: “Ministers have been wholly complacent about the new system’s problems. After labelling the previous system as unsustainable, they are happy to ignore the serious faults of its replacement.”

Gordon Brown promised to improve out-of-hours care as one of his first priorities as prime minister.