An independent report has found that 28 doctors killed themselves while under investigation for malpractice between 2005 and 2013.
The General Medical Council commissioned report out today found the doctors, who killed themselves or died of suspected suicide, were suffering from mental health problems or had drug or alcohol addictions, calling into question the health care of doctors.
A leading GP said she had seen a fourfold increase in patients at her service for sick doctors, and warned that a culture of complaint was "hard-wiring cruelty into the NHS" and increasing pressure on vulnerable doctors, nurses and managers.
Clare Gerada, the medical director of the Practitioner Health Programme, welcomed the GMC report, but said that the independent medical standards body must make its investigations into allegations against doctors "kinder".
The report by consultant Sarndrah Horsfall found that the GMC had made "significant improvements" in the support it offers to doctors under investigation, but recommended further changes to ensure that they feel they are being treated as innocent until proven guilty.
And it called for the Department of Health, NHS England and devolved administrations to set up a National Support Service for doctors.
Detailing concerns about the duration of GMC inquiries and the nature of correspondence sent to doctors, the report said: "Many still believe the GMC is a 'process'-driven organisation focused on protecting the public and that the doctor can become marginalised with little interpersonal communication, support or compassion.
"Many commented that the fitness to practise process creates an environment of uncertainty and makes doctors feel that they are judged 'guilty until proven innocent'."
In one suicide case, the report found that a doctor left a note reading: "I am extremely stressed and cannot carry on like this. I hold the GMC responsible for making my condition worse with no offer of help."
Ms Horsfall concluded: "The GMC needs to create an environment where doctors undergoing a fitness to practise investigation feel they are treated as 'innocent until proven guilty' - as with any judicial process.
"Investigations need to be conducted in a compassionate manner and as quickly and effectively as possible, taking into account legal constraints and the need to protect patients."
Dr Gerada said she had spoken to doctors whose investigations had dragged on for as long as five years, while they lost their families, their homes and their livelihoods, and who described the process as "death by 1,000 arrows, as bad as getting a diagnosis of cancer".
She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Having a mental illness should not mean that you are treated like a criminal.
"Sick doctors are patients. We are not aliens from outer space that have no feelings. A doctor with a depressive illness is a patient, and you need to afford them the same respect and compassion you would with any other patients."
She added: "The GMC have made some improvements over the years and what the report shows is they've still got a way to go ... They have to make their system kinder."
Dr Gerada said: "I think this is part of a general malaise within the NHS. What I'm seeing in my sick doctor service is a fourfold increase of doctors presenting.
"I think we are hard-wiring cruelty into the NHS. We've got lots of policies that encourage anonymous posting from patients, that encourage complaints and whistle-blowing. We've got policies that are designed to name and shame, that are designed to expose and humiliate.
"I don't think it's good. I don't think that any organisation, let alone hard-working doctors and nurses and managers, work best when they are named and shamed on the front page.
"The GMC are part of a system that we've got that has forgotten that those who are delivering care to the most vulnerable in our society should themselves have compassion given to them. I think policy-makers have a moral duty to look at the systems that are causing doctors to kill themselves, nurses to kill themselves and managers to kill themselves."
The GMC said it will convene a meeting in the New Year to explore the idea of establishing a National Support Service for doctors.
GMC chief executive Niall Dickson said: "We know that some doctors who come into our procedures have very serious health concerns, including those who have had ideas of committing suicide.
"We know too that for any doctor, being investigated by the GMC is a stressful experience and very often follows other traumas in their lives.
"Our first duty must, of course, be to protect patients but we are determined to do everything we can to make sure we handle these cases as sensitively as possible, to ensure the doctors are being supported locally and to reduce the impact of our procedures."
Mr Dickson acknowledged the GMC had "more to do" and said it would now review its process for dealing with doctors with health problems.
"We do recognise that doctors need to be able to access appropriate support when they are not well, and that doctors may have particular needs in their dealings with mental health and other services," he said.Suggest a correction