Writing complaints against NHS doctors ‘could lead them to suicide’, leading expert warns

Complaints about NHS doctors could lead them to depression and even trigger suicide, an expert has warned.

Dr Clare Gerada, the medical director of the NHS Practitioner Health Programme (PHP), said the number of complaints against NHS staff is rising.

But they can cause a spiral of events which can harm the doctor’s mental health, their colleagues and future patients, she warned.  

In a piece for the BMJ, Dr Gerada said: ‘Organisations need to understand the effect of complaints on a doctor’s mental health. 

‘Doing so might help reduce the number of doctors affected by mental illness and who go on to take their lives.’

She pointed out that a survey of nearly 8,000 doctors found that 77 per cent who had received a complaint were more likely to suffer moderate to severe depression than those who had never received a complaint. 

They also had twice the risk of moderate to severe anxiety.

‘It can even be a trigger for suicide,’ Dr Gerada added.

‘We can rarely be sure why someone chose to take their own life, but complaints often feature in the narratives of doctors who have done so.’

Dr Gerada, former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said complaints have increased by five per cent between 2016 and 2017. 

This could be due to more encouragement to complain if patients have concerns about their care.

Being involved with a complaint, of which she has received herself, can lead to a reduced quality of care.

‘Complaints change doctors’ behaviour,’ she wrote. ‘They become more cautious and less confident in their practice.

‘Poorly handled complaints often result in dysfunctional behaviour, such as failure to disclose all events, blaming of self and others, and arguments.’

This can hinder learning and could harm future patients, sometimes referred to as ‘secondary victims’.

Serious complaints can take years to deal with, leaving doctors ‘in a confusing matrix of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety’, Dr Gerada said.      

PHP is working to develop a best practice code for handling complaints to minimise harm to balance doctors’ rights with patients.    

Doctor’s mental health has been of a concern amid a shortage of NHS staff.

The General Medical Council said doctors are at the ‘brink of breaking point’ to ensure patient care in a December report.

Pressures faced by doctors include a rising number of patients, some with multiple complex health conditions, a shortage of experienced staff and system pressures including targets and administrative duties. 

These have led to longer hours and a deterioration of work/life balance, raising concerns about mental health as a result. 

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