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The standards expected of doctors: patient and public attitudes

Doctor & patient
Published: March 2012


This research study was conducted for the General Medical Council (GMC) in late 2011/early 2012. Our aim was to explore public perceptions of the standards of doctors. We wanted to find out what people think are the core values of good doctor care, and the extent of their trust in doctors in the UK. The research assisted the GMC with the development of its 2013 update to the Good Medical Practice (GMP),  advice to doctors on the standards expected of them.


Participants saw doctors as playing an important professional role. They were also perceived as individuals, with an expectation that they live ‘normal’ or ‘good’ lives outside of work.

Doctors were expected to maintain a distinction between their private and professional lives, and should not allow their personal lives or beliefs to impinge on their medical practice.

Being able to trust a doctor was seen as important, and the expectation was that doctors would be people of integrity outside work. They were expected to act in a patient’s best interests, and to retain an objective perspective.

Religious and moral beliefs should be excluded from medical practice – and while a doctor might have personal beliefs, disclosing such beliefs to patients was considered unprofessional.

Patients require unrestricted access to care, unless a patient behaves in appropriately, or threatens violence. They expect information shared with a doctor to be held in confidence, and integral to the doctor-patient partnership.

Patients wanted to be treated by a friendly, reassuring doctor. This helped to develop confidence and was important for insightful diagnosis. Allowances were made for ‘off days’ but a persistently poor attitude would lower trust in that doctor.

The GMC was seen to have an important role in setting standards, providing clear guidance so that doctors know what is expected of them and help on dealing with complex issues such as confidentiality.


We carried out eleven focus groups with members of the public, supplemented by a small number of one-to-one interviews with people from minority ethnic backgrounds who do not speak English as a first language.

Fieldwork was conducted in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and covered groups that the General Medical Council (GMC) believed might be less likely to respond to their wider consultation, namely:

  • Older people (including people in sheltered housing)
  • People from minority and ethnic groups (including Gypsy/Travellers)
  • Asylum seekers and refugees
  • Homeless people
  • Young people, and
  • People who are economically inactive

Within the focus groups and interviews, participants were asked to respond to a number of scenarios involving doctors and their patients were developed to help participants think about what they would expect of a doctor in different situations. 

Read the report