Open and constructive approach can resolve patient complaints


For immediate release: Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Many complaints doctors receive can be resolved by simply listening to the patient and adopting an open and constructive approach, claims UK-wide medical defence organisation MDDUS.

Receiving a complaint from a patient is the single most common reason doctors seek advice from MDDUS and accounts for around a fifth of all contacts received. Types of complaints include patients being unhappy with a treatment delay, alleged missed diagnosis and complaints by a family member of a deceased patient.

Last week, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt claimed doctors need to be more open and honest when things go wrong, while NHS England Litigation Authority issued a letter to hospital staff in England and Wales, urging them to “say sorry” if patient care is compromised.

MDDUS medical adviser Dr Barry Parker believes the way a doctor initially deals with a patient grievance can significantly influence the outcome of the complaint.

“It can be stressful for doctors receiving complaints about the care they provide,” says Dr Parker. “However, an open and constructive approach can help resolve issues at the earliest possible stage.

“In our experience, most patients who complain are not interested in pursuing long drawn-out formal complaints. Many complaints can be dealt with by way of an honest and direct explanation of what has taken place. Often just listening and understanding a patient’s concerns can be enough to defuse the situation.”

There are, of course, situations where doctors make mistakes and an apology to a patient is necessary. “Where doctors can identify any failings in their care of the patient, then they should offer a sincere apology,” says Dr Parker.

“Sometimes a genuine apology is all that a patient wants when making a complaint. Even where the doctor does not believe a mistake has been made, it is still possible to adopt a conciliatory tone by expressing regret that the patient is dissatisfied.

“Some patients may question their GP’s actions even if they have followed good medical practice and acted competently. In these situations, good record keeping is essential as this can support a doctor’s actions in addressing a complaint, whether at a local level, or to the Ombudsman or GMC.

“It is also important to try to learn from complaints, reflecting on what has happened and identifying any changes in individual practice or systems that may be required. Changes of this kind may also be shared with the complainant to demonstrate that the matter has been taken seriously. Patient safety can be improved if you have a system in place to review and learn from mistakes.”

GMC guidance Good Medical Practice states: “you must respond promptly, fully and honestly to complaints and apologise when appropriate. You must not allow a patient’s complaint to adversely affect the care or treatment you provide or arrange.”

Following this guidance can prevent complaints from escalating, and help to resolve matters between the doctor and the patient.


For further information contact Richard Hendry on 0845 270 2034 or 07976 272266, or email

Note to editors

MDDUS (The Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland) is a medical and dental defence organisation providing access to professional indemnity and expert medico- and dento-legal advice for doctors, dentists and other healthcare professionals throughout the UK. For further information on MDDUS go to

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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