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Patient complaints are stressful. Here’s how to handle them effectively.

Patient complaints can be stressful for your entire practice team, from clinical to administrative staff. But when you reframe complaints as a learning opportunity, you can better address and resolve them in a way that satisfies the patient (reducing the risk of legal or regulatory action), while supporting your team and improving your healthcare delivery and practice systems.

Why do patients complain?

A patient may complain when they feel something has gone wrong, whether that’s a treatment outcome, a doctor running late, fees charged or privacy breaches. In fact, miscommunication is the most common complaint reason.

Sometimes a simple apology is enough, with an assurance the practice will improve its approach in future. Other times, complaint handling requires more careful management – which we’ll look at here.

Detailed systems and processes support staff in complaints handling

When you receive a patient complaint, it’s best not to get defensive or take it personally, which can be tricky in the heat of the moment. That’s why having firm complaints handling policies and procedures setting out what steps to take in responding to a patient complaint, helps staff focus on the action, not the reaction. Some approaches to consider in your processes:

  • Respond to a complaint as soon as you can. For written complaints, respond by phone where possible, within 24 to 48 hours, to confirm receipt of the complaint and provide the patient with a timeline for your investigation.
  • Include a discussion of patient complaints at practice meetings and document them in the minutes, to demonstrate the complaint has been considered. Make time for discussing improvements in the practice as a result of a complaint.
  • Consider role-playing with staff on various patient complaint scenarios, using scripted responses and solutions, so they become confident in what to anticipate and how to respond. For example, lowering your voice to diffuse an angry or aggressive patient.
  • Adopt a transparent, open disclosure policy to resolve complaints. This can include involving the patient in discussions, so they can express their concerns, feel validated and suggest ways for your practice to improve.

Document complaints and how you managed them

When it comes to risk management, documentation is your best protection, in the event of legal action. Complaints management is no different. This is where a complaints register is useful. Recording the details of complaints helps you track progress, trends and make improvements in your practice. It’s not about the patient, but the event itself. So, include the following in your documentation:

  • What contributed to the event
  • Measures to put in place to prevent recurrence
  • Details of staff meetings where you brainstormed ideas on solutions
  • A column where you can track between six to twelve months if that complaint occurs again. If it does, you know that whatever remediation you’ve put in place hasn’t worked and needs improvement.

Your complaints policy and register form part of your broader practice policies and procedures, and your risk management and quality improvement strategy. Using an online practice management platform like PracticeHub, you can store your complaints management policies and procedures, linking them to the wider strategy and processes, and other resources.

For example, when creating your open disclosure policy, you can link to the Australian Open Disclosure Framework and to the Avant factsheet, Open disclosure: how to say sorry.

Involve your staff in complaints handling

Often, your reception staff bear the brunt of patient complaints, so it’s important that they are involved in devising your complaints handling strategy. The above mentioned staff meetings and role-play exercises are part of this, but once you document your complaints policies and procedures, how do you distribute them to staff? It’s easy with a tool like PracticeHub. In the platform, you can assign policies and procedures to your team for them to sign off and acknowledge that they’ve read and understood them. With your practice processes all in one place online, staff can access the current version easily. Policy updates are equally simple to make and push out to staff, with automatic notifications via PracticeHub, saving you time.

PracticeHub also helps you demonstrate your commitment to quality improvement in your practice processes, with its eight inbuilt training modules, including one covering patient communication. So you know your team always has the best support to handle patient complaints, thereby reducing your risk and helping your patients feel acknowledged.

Learn how PracticeHub improves your complaints handling and other essential practice processes. Book a demo or call 1300 469 866.


This article is not comprehensive and does not constitute legal or medical advice. You should seek legal or other professional advice before relying on its content, and practise proper clinical decision making with regard to the individual circumstances. Persons implementing any recommendations contained in this article must exercise their own independent skill or judgement or seek appropriate professional advice relevant to their own particular practice. Compliance with any recommendations will not in any way guarantee discharge of the duty of care owed to patients and others coming into contact with the health professional or practice. Avant is not responsible to you or anyone else for any loss suffered in connection with the use of this information. Information is only current at the date initially published. © Avant Mutual Group Limited 2024.

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