Act quickly on patient complaints

Responding swiftly and carefully to patient complaints can prevent them escalating to a more serious matter.

  • Date: 27 April 2012

NO healthcare professional likes being on the receiving end of a patient complaint, but it’s something that will most likely arise at some point in your career. And while it may be tempting to put off thinking about a complaint until another day, responding quickly and carefully can often defuse the situation and prevent it from getting out of hand.

Patient complaints are among the most common reasons doctors and dentists contact MDDUS for advice. But following a few basic guidelines can help minimise the risk of a minor complaint escalating into a more serious matter such as a clinical negligence claim or a report to the Ombudsman or the GMC/GDC.

More often than not, a complaint can be dealt with on the spot with an honest and direct explanation and apology (where appropriate). Giving patients time to explain their concerns, and listening to them without interrupting, can be enough to defuse the situation.

Active listening is key. It’s important to acknowledge the problem and invite the patient to air their concerns by saying something like: "I can see that this is a very serious issue for you. I am very sorry that this has not worked out as we both hoped. Please take your time and tell me what the problems are and then we can talk about how we can set them right."

Patients who complain to doctors are often just looking for a sincere apology and reassurance that a similar incident will not happen again to other patients. An obvious fear among healthcare professionals is that an apology may be interpreted as an admission of liability in any potential litigation.

But under the Compensation Act 2006, which applies in England and Wales, "An apology, offer of treatment or other redress, shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty." And guidance from the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman advises that an apology "is not a sign of weakness or an invitation to be sued", adding: "To apologise is good practice and is an important part of effectively managing complaints."

Each patient complaint is different so advice will vary depending on circumstances but there can be no harm in a sincere expression of regret for the patient’s dissatisfaction. Contact MDDUS for help with specific incidents.

Dissatisfied patients can be fearful, mistrustful and angry; it’s important to defuse and not further inflame such emotions. Try to acknowledge and understand the anger a patient may be feeling – and don’t take it personally, it’s important to remain calm and courteous.

Another part of active listening involves summarising what the patient has been telling you and validating their concerns. For example: "Let me check I have understood you correctly; you are concerned that your wound may be infected. I can understand that this would be very worrying."

An important element of defusing complaints early is in identifying them at an early stage. These can often start out as "comments" or "queries" or "suggestions". For this reason, it is important to avoid being dismissive or insensitive towards such patient contacts as this in itself might lead to the complaint escalating. Evidence has shown that the manner or approach adopted initially in a complaint can have a profound effect upon the process and outcome.

All medical and dental practices should have a comprehensive policy in place for handling complaints that patients should be made aware of. Equally, clinicians working in secondary care should be familiar with the health board/Trust complaints policy and advise patients where appropriate.

Most importantly, it is important to seek advice from MDDUS as soon as you are aware of a complaint, if not sooner. Even before a complaint has been made, our advisers are happy to discuss any concerns you may have about an incident that you believe may lead to a complaint. The sooner you act, the more likely you will be able to defuse the situation.

ACTION Deal with patient complaints quickly and carefully. Seek prompt advice from MDDUS



Essential guide to complaint handling in primary care, MDDUS

Principles of good complaint handling, Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

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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