The General Medical Council plans to clear a backlog of over 200 professional misconduct cases by the end of the year, and to ensure its new governance arrangements are ready for ministers by the end of May.

The decisions, taken at a private conference last week, followed news of a 50 per cent rise in the number of complaints against doctors and reported to the GMC last year.

A total of 4,470 complaints were made in 2000, compared to around 3,000 in 1999 and just over 1,500 in 1995.

The GMC now aims to ensure that any complaint has an initial response within a week, outlining whether it should be dealt with by itself or by the NHS complaints procedure. The GMC estimates that 25 per cent of complaints it receives should more appropriately have been sent elsewhere.

It is working towards a target of 80 per cent of misconduct cases being heard, or moved to the next stage, within six months of them being referred to the professional conduct committee.

So far, it has heard over 70 per cent of cases referred in the last six months.

However, GMC director of fitness to practise Isabel Nisbet said the real problem was the current backlog of cases to be dealt with.

She said the GMC was 'planning to have 550 sitting days this year' to deal with cases. This compares to around 100 sitting days in 1995.

The backlog of professional conduct committee cases stood at 215 at the end of December, and provisional dates have been booked to hear all of them by the end of 2001.

Some of the cases were referred as far back as1998, and may have been initially reported well before then.

The GMC has also decided to pursue closer collaboration with trusts and health authorities to 'protect the public more quickly and effectively'. It has written to trusts and HAs to encourage 'early dialogue with us about emerging problems with dysfunctional doctors', and is establishing closer communications with the Commission for Health Improvement, in England and Wales, and the Clinical Standards Board in Scotland.

The council has decided to consult on its preferred option for a new governance structure. This would comprise a small core governing body of around 20 to25 members, a further 70 to 80 members to make up the whole council, and between 70 and 80 people involved with the PCC.

A final decision on this will be taken at the council's meeting at the end of May.

GMC president Sir Donald Irvine said the council had not discussed getting extra funding from government for the increase in workload.

He said his understanding was that the Department of Health and ministers would wait until May before deciding on this, and that they wanted the 'GMC to take the lead'.