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30 Sep 2014

Complaints against doctors have surged in Britain because of the spread of social media rather than a lapse in professional standards, an investigation has found.

Amid mounting concerns that doctor rating sites and other online tools leave practitioners vulnerable to unfounded and malicious slurs on their reputation, a Plymouth University study found that social media had contributed to an increased tendency of patients to complain.

The UK’s General Medical Council commissioned the research after complaints it received about doctors virtually doubled in five years, to 10,347 in 2012.

The investigators could not identify a single cause for the increase, but noted a number of trends that made it more likely for patients to make a complaint.

These included improvements in practice that made patients better informed, higher expectations regarding the quality of treatment and less deference felt toward doctors.

But the researchers said the rise of social media had also contributed to the increase by making it easier for patients to share their experiences with a wider audience.

They speculated that high-profile reports of medical malpractice and other unfavourable media coverage was gradually undermining the medical profession’s reputation, encouraging more patients to make “me too” complaints.

Lead author Dr Julian Archer, of the University’s Peninsula Schools of Dentistry and Medicine, told the BBC there was no simple explanation for the increase in complaints.

“ 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,” Dr Archer said.

GMC Chief Executive Niall Dickson said the increase in complaints appeared to be due to an increased preparedness of patients to voice dissatisfaction rather than a poorer medical practice.

“We have no evidence that the rise in complaints against doctors reflects falling standards,” he told the BBC.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 30 Sep 2014