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Medicolegal advice 1800 936 077

Why do patients complain?

18 July 2023

Many doctors will experience a complaint, investigation or clinical negligence claim during their medical career; these concerns may come from a patient, an employer or via the Medical Council and could relate to any aspect of professional practice.

Complaints against doctors have unfortunately become more common in recent years. This is likely due to the increasing complexity of medicine and an emerging complaints culture amongst the general public, rather than any decrease in doctors’ performance.

Patients can make a complaint about any aspect of the medical care they receive. Some common reasons for patient complaints include:

• Incorrect, missed or delayed diagnosis
• Delayed treatment
• Post-surgery complications
• Poor explanation of their options
• Inappropriate conduct or behaviour of the doctor
• Lack of informed consent (or capacity to consent)
• Breach of patient confidentiality

The list is not exhaustive – there are many examples of what can go wrong in a clinical setting. Doctors are, after all, only human and errors can occur despite their best efforts, particularly when they are working under pressure in a stressful environment.

What can happen following a complaint?

A patient complaint, or clinical incident involving a patient, can lead to many different types of investigation, for example:

• Complaint directly to the provider (eg hospital or GP practice)
• Medical Council investigation
• Hospital inquiry (eg serious adverse incident inquiry)
• An inquest if a patient has died
• Disciplinary action by the employer 
• Negligence claim (for financial compensation)
• Criminal investigation
We encourage our members to contact us as soon as an incident occurs, so that we can offer advice on what to do next. Early intervention is key and can sometimes prevent an incident escalating into one or more of the other investigations listed above. 

What risks might I face as an international medical graduate (IMG)?

Although not always the case, IMGs may find themselves facing a complaint investigation for various reasons including: 

• Misconduct on social media
• Clinical mistakes, or poor communication, when working with patients
• Accusations of poor practice/different practice styles

If you’re worried about any current or potential issues, you can email us or call our dedicated support and advice line on 1800 936 077.

How can I avoid patient complaints and other medicolegal problems?

“Prevention is better than cure”. It's a well-known phrase in medicine, and it’s also true where medicolegal issues are concerned. 
You can help protect yourself from future complaints and claims by being aware of potential risks and taking steps to mitigate these before an incident occurs. Most patient complaints relate to one or more of the following areas:

• Competence
• Communication
• Consent
• Confidentiality
• Conduct

Being aware and knowledgeable about potential risk will have a positive impact on your behaviour and clinical performance. Here are our suggestions:

Stay up to date 

Keep abreast of the latest developments in healthcare in Ireland, such as news, policy announcements and important changes to regulations and legislation.


Work on your skills 

Are your organisational and communication skills up to scratch? It is common for medicolegal cases to involve poor communication.


Do you communicate effectively?

Patients will usually appreciate honest, open doctors who communicate effectively, explain issues clearly and apologise appropriately when things don’t go to plan.
It’s also key that you communicate clearly and fully with colleagues at all levels.


Learn from others’ mistakes 

Many doctors have found themselves in tricky situations; learn from them so you don’t end up in the same position. Read our case reports here.


Take online courses

Learning doesn’t stop at medical school. If time allows, take additional online courses. 

What if I make a mistake?

Sometimes prevention isn’t enough and even the best, most diligent doctors find themselves facing complaints and legal action. At this stage there are still steps you can take to protect yourself.

The Medical Council expects all doctors to have a duty of candour towards their patients and states: "Patients and their families, where appropriate, are entitled to honest, open and prompt communication about adverse events that may have caused them harm. When discussing events with patients and their families, you should:

• acknowledge that the event happened
• explain how it happened
• apologise, if appropriate
• assure patients and their families that the cause of the event will be investigated and efforts made to reduce the chance of it happening again.