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The impact of complaints procedures on the welfare, health and clinical practise of 7926 doctors in the UK: a cross-sectional survey
  1. Tom Bourne1,2,3,
  2. Laure Wynants4,5,
  3. Mike Peters6,
  4. Chantal Van Audenhove7,
  5. Dirk Timmerman2,3,
  6. Ben Van Calster2,
  7. Maria Jalmbrant8
  1. 1Queen Charlotte's & Chelsea Hospital, Imperial College, London, UK
  2. 2KU Leuven Department of Development and Regeneration, Leuven, Belgium
  3. 3Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University Hospitals Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
  4. 4KU Leuven Department of Electrical Engineering-ESAT, STADIUS Center for Dynamical Systems, Signal Processing and Data Analytics, Leuven, Belgium
  5. 5KU Leuven iMinds Future Health Department, Leuven, Belgium
  6. 6Doctors for Doctors, British Medical Association, London, UK
  7. 7LUCAS, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
  8. 8South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Tom Bourne; tbourne{at}


Objectives The primary aim was to investigate the impact of complaints on doctors’ psychological welfare and health. The secondary aim was to assess whether doctors report exposure to a complaints process is associated with defensive medical practise.

Design This was a cross-sectional anonymous survey study. Participants were stratified into recent/current, past, no complaints. Each group completed tailored versions of the survey.

Participants 95 636 doctors were invited to participate. A total of 10 930(11.4%) responded, 7926 (8.3%) completed the full survey and were included in the complete analysis.

Main outcome measures Anxiety and depression were assessed using the standardised Generalised Anxiety Disorder scale and Physical Health Questionnaire. Defensive practise was evaluated using a new measure. Single-item questions measured stress-related illnesses, complaints-related experience, attitudes towards complaints and views on improving complaints processes.

Results 16.9% of doctors with current/recent complaints reported moderate/severe depression (relative risk (RR) 1.77 (95% CI 1.48 to 2.13) compared to doctors with no complaints (9.5%)). Fifteen per cent reported moderate/severe anxiety (RR=2.08 (95% CI 1.61 to 2.68) compared to doctors with no complaints (7.3%)). Distress increased with complaint severity, with highest levels after General Medical Council (GMC) referral (26.3% depression, 22.3% anxiety). Doctors with current/recent complaints were 2.08 (95% CI 1.61 to 2.68) times more likely to report thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation. Most doctors reported defensive practise: 82–89% hedging and 46–50% avoidance. Twenty per cent felt victimised after whistleblowing, 38% felt bullied, 27% spent over 1 month off work. Over 80% felt processes would improve with transparency, managerial competence, capacity to claim lost earnings and action against vexatious complainants.

Conclusions Doctors with recent/current complaints have significant risks of moderate/severe depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. Morbidity was greatest in cases involving the GMC. Most doctors reported practising defensively, including avoidance of procedures and high-risk patients. Many felt victimised as whistleblowers or reported bullying. Suggestions to improve complaints processes included transparency and managerial competence.


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