Ninety per cent of badly performing doctors have a 'learning deficit', new research into their behaviour concludes.

What is believed to be the first UK study of why some doctors are consistently seen as 'difficult characters', shows that the majority lack communication, teamwork or influencing skills.

Researchers analysed the personalities of 120 hospital doctors and GPs who had been referred to the National Clinical Assessment Service (NCAS) - an NHS body that assesses and supports doctors whose performance has given cause for concern.

The work, which was carried out by Edgecumbe Consulting Group since NCAS launched in 2002, used interviews and psychometric data to find common personality traits among doctors who consistently get into trouble with employers.

Research lead Dr Jenny King said: 'The purpose of this work is to understand the behaviour affecting doctors' performance and how likely it is they can change. We are trying to prevent doctors from being suspended.'

Doctors referred to NCAS typically have problems in communicating with colleagues and patients. They may be seen as emotionally volatile, narcissistic or arrogant, said Dr King.

'We found there is a strong tendency for these doctors to take perfectionism to extremes. They can be extremely difficult to please and have poor self-awareness. They may be intellectually intelligent, but not emotionally. '

But rather than being antagonistic, the doctors were found to be averse to conflict. They were not good at reflecting on their own behaviour and there was reluctance among colleagues, particularly junior staff, to criticise them.

The personality problems are described as 'learning deficits' as the occupational psychologists believe the skills can be learned through appropriate remedial support, which will be provided by NCAS.

'I am confident that those who have the motivation will be able to succeed in this programme,' added Dr King.

The Edgecumbe Consultancy Group has begun a comparative sample study with doctors who are not under scrutiny.