• Complaint resolution

    It is important to ensure that in an environment of best practice and continuous improvement, issues raised by patients are responded to appropriately and in a timely manner.

    Patient feedback and complaints are vital business tools used for addressing identified risks, near misses, and improving business processes. Such information can assist the business to identify strengths and weaknesses and opportunities to improve their services and facility. These services can be continually improved through a systematic analysis and response to customer complaints, which may also be the best source of market-based information available to the provider.

    All feedback from patients, including their families, and staff should be encouraged at all times. All complaints, both formal and informal should be managed appropriately, fairly and promptly.


    Tools and Resources

    Download the Complaints checklist

    What to do and what not to do

    People usually complain because something has gone wrong, but they may also complain because of unmet expectations or because there has been a breakdown in communication.

    People may also complain about the practice itself: being kept waiting too long without explanation, breaches of privacy, abrupt staff, confusing messages etc.

    How you deal with complaints may have an influence on whether the matter will go further (e.g. to the medical registration body, to a complaints handling body or to the patient's lawyer). The following is a simple guide on what to do and what not to do if you receive a complaint about you or your staff.

    Improving your practice

    Every practice should have a protocol for dealing with complaints, which includes the following principles.

    Avant's Getting Started in Practice - Process and relationship of complaints to the doctor  

    Figure: Process and relationship of complaints to the doctor

    Handling the complaint

    • There are staff designated to deal with complaints. If patients perceive that their complaint is being taken seriously and is being handled by someone with sufficient authority to address and resolve their concerns, they are generally more likely to accept the outcome.
    • It is a good idea to deal with complaints of a clinical nature yourself (or the medical director if this is someone else's role within the practice), while complaints about the practice could be dealt with by you or your practice manager.
    • Do not ignore complaints. It is good practice to deal with complaints as quickly as possible with an emphasis on resolving the concerns.
    • Listen to the concerns raised: you may not agree that there was anything to complain about, but that is not the view of the person who made the complaint. Encourage the patient to tell you what has happened in their own words:
      • What is the complaint about?
      • Who is it about?
      • What does the patient expect from making a complaint - what aspects of their care would they like to see done differently?

    The scope of the complaint is very important to establish at the outset as you may assume the worst but the patient's concern may be very limited. For instance, they want to see a copy of a report and have it explained, or to receive an apology for being kept waiting for an extended period.

    Acknowledge the complaint and the patient's feelings: "I can see that you're upset, it must have been frustrating for you" etc. If you are upset about an outcome, tell the patient. There is nothing wrong with empathy. If you are sorry about what happened, tell them.

    Care about the patient. Be available if something has gone wrong, be prepared to meet with them, more than once if necessary, to address and resolve their concerns.

    Resolving the complaint:

    • Speak directly with the patient if they have made a complaint - preferably face-to-face if practical.
    • If the patient complaint is from a health care complaints body or medical registration board, or is a claim for negligence initiated by the service of a Statement of Claim or other court document from the patient's lawyers, contact Avant for advice.
    • For all other complaints - once received in writing or verbally - acknowledge in writing that you have received the complaint, and follow up with a phone call.
    • Suggest a meeting to discuss the concerns. Encourage the patient to bring a friend or partner to accompany them, or suggest an interpreter if language is a barrier.
    • Gather the facts: medical notes, copies of reports, records of phone calls, discuss with relevant staff, checking local protocols. Check what happened on that day: was it especially busy? Was that the day you were running very late and were rushed? The day a casual had to be called in to replace a staff member on leave?
    • Provide information. Most people who complain wish to obtain information about what happened, and what it means for them.
    • Consider the factors that led to the complaint: are there changes that can be made to prevent a recurrence? If so, communicate this to the patient as they will wish to see you take the complaint seriously and that it will make a difference.
    • Keeping parties informed. If there will be delays while you seek out facts or in your being available, say so, as uncertainty or 'no response' will add to the grievance.

    How to wrap it up

    Provide a summary of what has been covered, what has been achieved and ascertain if the patient is satisfied that their concerns have been addressed. Clarify what will happen next. If follow-up is required, make sure it happens. If further information, treatment or a referral has been promised, make sure this happens. Be prepared to be reasonable about fees. The aim is to resolve an issue and preserve the therapeutic relationship.

    If, however, you feel that the relationship can no longer be sustained because of the complaint, there are ways of managing this.

    Terminating the doctor-patient relationship

    When informing the patient that you intend to terminate the relationship, do not blame the patient but rather the relationship. Follow up this discussion with a letter to the patient repeating your decision and highlighting the importance of any ongoing care they require. Advise that you are happy to provide a copy of their medical records (without cost to the patient even if this is your usual record transfer policy), and offer assistance finding a new doctor if necessary. Advise practice staff to make no further appointments for the patient.

    However, it is not appropriate to end the relationship if you are currently treating the patient for a serious health problem or you are the only practitioner offering a particular service. Be careful not to terminate a relationship with a patient solely on the basis of gender, sexual preference, race, disability, age, HIV status or other factors covered by anti-discrimination legislation.

    Learning from complaints

    Monitoring and review of complaints should be part of every practice. Information about near misses, adverse events and complaints provides an opportunity to improve the standard of service and care. Ensure that near misses, adverse events and complaints become a standing item at every practice meeting, and discuss any recent issues in a de-identified manner - not appointing blame but using it as a discussion point about what could be done differently next time.

    Looking after yourself

    It is a confronting experience to receive a complaint. It is difficult not to become defensive. The temptation is to deny the issues, to blame the patient for being difficult, non-compliant, hostile etc. However, it does not help resolve the situation by fighting back, ignoring the problem or being 'petulant'.

    Talk to a colleague, your partner, Avant's medico-legal service, seek advice and seek support.


    Reminder from avant-learning-centre

    Patient safety is a fundamental part of providing quality health care in which doctors and practice staff play an integral role. Although doctors take great care to ensure the safety of their patients, adverse, or sentinel events do occur. When they do, it is important that practices have a thorough system in place for identifying and analysing the cause and effect of these events. The fundamental purpose of having a robust system in place is to reduce the risk of a similar incident occurring again.

    Factsheet: Dealing with patient complaints
    Factsheet: Open disclosure: how to say sorry
    eLearning: Managing adverse events for registrars
    Article: Sorry: little word with big impact