Proactive response to patient complaints

Should practices consider monitoring social media forums to counter misinformation with factual evidence and advice?

  • Date: 31 August 2021

A RECENT survey conducted by the BMA found that more than half of GPs questioned had experienced verbal abuse in the past month, while over two-thirds witnessed violence or verbal abuse against colleagues.

At MDDUS we have also noted an increase in requests for advice and training from practices for assistance in managing this serious issue. Such incidents seem to be increasing and are likely being exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-related restrictions, with access to primary care services being a common flashpoint.

This applies equally to primary care dentists, with some patients expressing anger at not being able to access routine NHS treatment.

A likely consequence of this activity will be a significant rise in related patient complaints, to which practices will then have to divert additional time and resources in investigating and responding. This may be particularly relevant now as public goodwill with Covid-19 measures wears thin.

Negative comments

It’s clear that there is much angst and frustration among the general public at present. Further evidence of an increasing public backlash against primary care services can now be seen through the many negative comments being posted online, and in particular on local social media community forums and pages, as well as other popular national chat groups.

Some of these posts are vitriolic in nature, which is both unacceptable and distressing for the clinicians and practice staff in question. However, there will also be comments which would certainly be classed as a genuine concern or complaint about the service in question.

Common themes centre around being unable to get a face-to-face appointment, or even get through on the phone to a local practice. Examples include:

  • I’ve not been able to get an appointment face-to-face this whole time – are they enjoying having all this time off?
  • I was told they are now all working from home. Does anyone ever get to see a doctor anymore?
  • I phoned last week and got through. I then redialled to query something and had to sit with the phone ringing for 18 minutes until it got answered.

Keeping an eye on social media posts

Many practices now have their own social media presence through apps, such as Facebook or Twitter, which can make it easier to monitor and understand what is happening in the communities they serve. However, some practices do not appear to be monitoring social media channels, and by implication are not aware of some of the important issues that patients are raising via local online community forums.

There is always an element of ‘self-policing’ which takes place within these public groups, where other patients will weigh in with more supportive comments or offer suggestions as to why something is happening or has gone wrong. However, what is often missing are source-led facts and practices taking the opportunity to be more proactive in their communication with the wider community: getting accurate, factual and helpful information out there before an issue escalates through the spread of misinformation and rumour.

For example, how many patients actually understand and appreciate how telephone triage works in practice, and why it is necessary at this time?

Countering misinformation

There can be valid concerns that engaging with individuals on these types of open online forums may only risk escalating an issue, or create more problems for the practice to deal with. However, helpful and accurate information can be posted in a neutral manner, without getting into an online argument with individuals. This could mitigate risk to the practice’s local reputation, as well as address potential issues before they escalate.

Ensure that when responding to criticism online you restrict your comments to general service matters and avoid addressing specific patient complaints or other issues, in order to maintain confidentiality (see further guidance below).

Action points

  • Practices should consider monitoring local community public social media forums and be prepared to counter misinformation with factual evidence and helpful advice.
  • Consider proactive ways to reach the public to communicate important service information and arrangements during the ongoing pandemic.

Alan Frame is a risk adviser at MDDUS

Further guidance

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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