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Preventing & Managing Complaints

We all have to deal with complaints from time to time, no matter what our profession. It is an unfortunate occupational hazard, but there are steps we can take to minimise the risk of complaints being made, and in the unfortunate event of a patient having cause to make a complaint, there are ways in which it can be treated as a positive intervention.

Prevention is of course better than cure, so we have recommended some simple steps below to help reduce the risk of complaints being made in the first place:

  • Build a good relationship with your patient so that they feel comfortable asking any questions they may have about the proposed treatment or procedure.

  • Ensure you allow sufficient time to explain the proposed treatment or procedure and allow time for the patient to ask you questions. Patients who feel rushed, harried and as though they haven’t been listened to are the ones most likely to complain.

  • Give your patient clear and detailed information about the treatment or procedure, its risks, any potential complications and the alternative treatment options that are available to them.

  • Set realistic outcomes, goals and timeframes.

  • Provide your patient with information leaflets to take away with them so they can consider their options outside the setting of a doctor’s office, where they can sometimes feel rushed into agreeing to treatment without having had sufficient time to consider their options.

  • Document the advice that you give, including a record of what advice, information and leaflets you have given to the patient.

If a patient does have cause to complain, it is important to respond to it promptly, honestly and openly. If things have gone wrong, do not be afraid to apologise. In the event of a complaint:

  • Notify your Professional Indemnity Insurers as soon as a complaint is received so that they can provide you with assistance in preparing an appropriate response.

  • Respond as quickly as possible. When things go wrong, it can have a devastating impact on a patient, and they often want answers as to what went wrong and why. The longer you leave it to respond, the more difficult it will be for you to remember precisely what happened; ignoring the complaint won’t make it go away, and dragging it out will only make the patient more upset.

  • Give an honest response. Patients are better informed than ever, so they will not accept a response which attempts to brush off their concerns. If you must use technical language to explain what went wrong, break this down into language which will be more accessible and easier for the patient to understand.

  • Apologise where things have gone wrong. The vast majority of complaints arise because patients simply want you to say you’re sorry for what went wrong. Apologising for what happened can therefore help to resolve the complaint before it escalates into litigation. An apology will not always prevent litigation, but it can often go a long way towards resolving the complaint at the outset.

  • Explain what you have learned from the experience, and where appropriate, set out the steps that you will take to ensure that the same problem does not arise again in the future.

  • Offer the patient a resolution. This may be in the form of remedial surgery, further treatment, onward referral or perhaps a refund on part or all of the costs of the original treatment. However, it is vital that you speak to your insurers before offering any such refunds to ensure that you fully understand the legal implications of your offer.

In summary, you can reduce the number of complaints you receive by building a good patient-doctor relationship. By allowing a sufficient amount of time to explain all the possible outcomes, and by giving the patient the opportunity to ask questions, they will feel valued and part of the process, and this will minimise the chances of them making a complaint in the unfortunate event of something going wrong.

If a patient does have cause to complain, it does not have to be a negative experience. You can use the complaint as an opportunity to learn from what went wrong and improve your own practice to ensure the mistake is not repeated. If handled promptly and properly, with apologies where appropriate, a complaint can usually be resolved at the outset before it escalates into litigation.

If you have any questions or comments in relation to this article please, contact Clyde & Co.

Claire Petts
Partner, Clyde & Co LLP
Claire.Petts@clydeco.com

Clyde & Co LLP and Premium Medical Protection Ltd accept no responsibility for loss occasioned to any person acting or refraining from acting as a result of material contained in this summary. No part of this summary may be used, reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, reading or otherwise without the prior permission of Clyde & Co LLP. © Clyde & Co LLP 2020

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