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Act on complaints as soon as you can, say medicolegal advisers

9 October 2007

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Following the Healthcare Commission report highlighting inconsistencies in the NHS’s handling of patients’ complaints, the Medical Defence Union (MDU) has advised that most complaints can be resolved quickly with a prompt and sympathetic response, which properly addresses the complainants’ concerns.

Dr Hugh Stewart, MDU medico-legal adviser said:
“The MDU responds to around 90 calls a week from members asking for advice about complaints. We explain that the aim of any complaints procedure should be to address grievances in a conciliatory manner as soon after the event as possible.

“We also remind doctors that if a patient feels their complaint has not been taken seriously, their position may harden and the situation may escalate.

“As the Healthcare Commission says, there can be no one-size-fits-all approach to investigating complaints. However, our experience of helping members shows that complainants usually want three things from the complaints procedure ā€“ an explanation, an apology, if appropriate and where possible a reassurance that steps have been taken to prevent a recurrence of the cause of the complaint.

“It is also important that doctors are aware that saying sorry when something has gone wrong is not an admission of liability; it may be all the patient wants to hear.

“We also advise our members to seek to learn from complaints as part of their adverse incident procedures. We support the Healthcare Commission’sĀ  emphasis on using complaints to identify where systems need to be put in place to try to prevent mistakes happening again.”

The MDU has published the following five tips for doctors to help them deal with complaints quickly and consistently:

  • Deal with complaints in a professional and conciliatory manner, and try not to take any criticism personally.
  • The complaints process should be overseen by a dedicated practice or trust complaints manager who can investigate the complaint and keep a comprehensive log of how it is handled.
  • Any response should be professional, measured and sympathetic in tone, and should include your full name and relationship with the patient. As far as possible, this should address each and every concern raised by the complainant.
  • Apologise if appropriate. The complaints process is not meant to be adversarial, and telling a patient “I’m sorry this has happened to you” is not the same as admitting liability.
  • Have an adverse incident procedure in place. This will enable you to explain to the patient what happened, why and what steps you have taken to prevent it happening again.

Medical Defence Union