The General Medical Council has told HSJ it will investigate an apparent statistical link between high mortality rates and the numbers of doctors receiving a warning or sanction.

The medical regulator says it plans to carry out further study and will work with other organisations to understand the link which emerged in its annual State of Medical Education and Practice Report.

The GMC found higher mortality rates at specific trusts, as measured by the summary hospital-level mortality indicator, were mirrored by high numbers of sanctions or warnings issued to doctors from the same organisation.

The regulator stressed the figures did not show causality between the two and highlighted that mortality rates were affected by a multitude of factors.

While the link was described as “low to moderate”, the GMC said it was established using a stricter than normal statistical measure to reduce the possibility that the results were due to chance.

The study did not reveal a link between the overall number of complaints received or investigated by the GMC and mortality rates.

Sanctions and warnings issued by the GMC will be able to be used as an early warning indicator due to the delays in cases being resolved, HSJ was told.

But the data could be used by the GMC to identify issues and alert hospital trusts.

The GMC said in a statement: “The association between mortality rates and professional practice meriting a sanction or warning is worth recognising. For example, high mortality rates at a trust may signal professional practice issues, highlighting that doctors working there might need further support.

“This may be useful for the GMC’s employer liaison service and for responsible officers in the trusts concerned.”

It added: “We want to get a better understanding of this data. This was our first look at this data, so we will be looking to understand it better.”

The watchdog has pledged to be more “proactive and responsive” following the Francis report into the failures at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust.

Robert Francis QC also called on the GMC to work with other regulators and to share and coordinate patient safety information.

The GMC’s report, released earlier this month, highlighted a 24 per cent increase in complaints about doctors since 2011 and a rise of over 100 per cent since 2007 with a total of 8,109 complaints in 2012 with 179 resulting in a warning or sanction.