How doctors can turn patient complaints to their advantage

Posted on Posted in Medical Advice, Medical Law

The deleterious effects of patient complaints on GPs are perhaps not widely appreciated among those that make them. In the world at large, people are encouraged to express their opinions on a range of matters that affect them – and medical care is proving to be no different.  However, it is clear from a recent study undertaken by Imperial College, that complaints not only have a negative effect on doctors’ own health, particularly when they are escalated to the GMC, but can also result in defensive medicine being practised – potentially to the detriment of the patient. So, how can doctors turn patient complaints to their advantage?


1. Have a positive attitude to handling complaints.

Consider implementing the Friends & Family Test and then deal with each negative comment proactively. Instigating a simple, open complaints procedure and by showing a willingness to engage at the outset, GPs can head off a potential claim at the pass. When a complaint hits your desk, deal with each one honestly; don’t fudge the issue – your patients will thank you. Remember that many complainants have either got the wrong end of the stick or their complaint has no serious foundation and can be resolved through good communication.

2. Compliance with your Duty of Candour will cement patient loyalty

Drawing on the experience of my own profession, lawyers must admit their mistakes and must advise affected clients to seek independent legal advice (and, although this is not enshrined in statute, lawyers can be struck off for non-compliance). In this way, nine times out of ten, the complaint is resolved and the professional’s reputation is enhanced by openness and honesty.

3. Use any complaints productively

Patient complaints can often be a catalyst for highlighting a better way of doing something. Complaints shared, can be a problem halved: depending, of course, on the level of confidentiality required, both clinical and administrative staff can contribute to resolving particular issues and find ways of preventing that type of complaint occurring in future.


4. Addressing complaints promptly will avoid minor issues becoming major ones

Given the workload of the average GP, the temptation to put less serious complaints in the ‘to do’ pile, is very high. But in doing so, you risk minor complaints (most of which are very unlikely to lead to a claim) morphing into major ones which take up disproportionate amounts of time and money, particularly if lawyers become involved.

5. Sorry is the hardest word

In my experience of practising clinical negligence law (on both sides of the fence) for more than 20 years, the one thing that most patients want if something goes wrong is an apology. Whether or not a patient has misunderstood the advice given or the treatment recommended or whether an error has indeed been made, a simple apology and undertaking to put things right will, in many cases, resolve the issue. More often than not, it is the absence of this single word that causes an escalation of the problem and hardens patients’ resolve to pursue a negligence claim.


A recent comment made by GMC chairman, Professor Terence Stephenson, that every doctor should embrace the prospect of at least one GMC investigation during his or her career as an ‘occupational hazard’ is likely to alarm even the most stalwart in the profession. I don’t believe that this has to be the case if GPs saw complaints as a force for good, dealing with them quickly and effectively so that lessons learned are taken on board and necessary changes are made. This should ensure that only the most serious cases end up before the GMC. I also believe that the introduction of GP practice inspections by the CQC (once the system is properly applied to achieve the intended objective of improving patient safety without alienating GPs) will, in the post-Shipman, post-Stafford era, promote transparency and ultimately reduce the intervention of the legal profession into the realm of the medical.

This report is also available in our expert contributor section where you can also learn more about Jeanette Whyman & her career.

Jeanette Whyman from Wright Hassall is a medical negligence solicitor with over 25 years’ experience she has acted both for and against hospital trusts. She now represents patients who are victims of medical negligence.

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