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10 steps to complaints handling

08 May 2024

A complaint can happen to any medical professional at any time. We have helped many members in cases where a complaint had been made.

When facing a complaint, it’s reassuring to know you have an organisation with more than a century of experience behind you.

No two complaints are the same, so we take a flexible approach to handling them. We recommend following our 10-step approach to help get the best resolution for our members.

1. Train and prepare colleagues

Good communicators usually make good complaints handlers. Most members of your medical team will have no formal training in communication or complaints handling, so train them in these skills. Untrained staff can then direct all complaints to the nearest trained complaints handler.

To learn how to train and prepare your colleagues in complaints handling, sign up for our communications course, available to members as a benefit of membership. Visit the online learning hub to find out more.

2. Actively identify complaints

Take a proactive approach to identifying complaints. Most dissatisfied patients do not complain, they simply leave and go elsewhere, which is not good for business.

The aim is to encourage patients to tell you if they have a problem, before they tell someone else! There are many ways of identifying dissatisfaction:

•  Prominently display your complaints procedure.

•  Train all staff to identify the ‘body language’ associated with dissatisfaction.

  Provide comment or feedback cards.

•  Use patient surveys for those who wish to respond.

3. Accept complaints

Acknowledge all complaints quickly and give patients a copy of the complaints procedure. This will tell them about the stages of the process you have adopted and when they might expect a formal response.

A patient is more likely to react favourably if they know their complaint has been heard and is being dealt with, even if a slight delay is unavoidable.

Take a moment to empathise with the patient and see things from their perspective.

4. Get the view of all parties involved

It’s important for the complaints co-ordinator to include all the relevant people in the process.

•  Identify all parties involved and seek their views.

  Coordinate the response so that everyone knows their role in the complaints process.

5. Investigate fully

A frequent mistake in complaints handling is to provide a detailed response before the investigation has finished and all the facts have been gathered.

Remember that any response to a complaint could form evidence considered at a later hearing. Don’t be over-hasty in your response. Get the facts straight and think it through.

6. Resolve the dissatisfaction

It’s understandable for someone to become defensive when receiving a complaint, especially if they see it as unreasonable or unfair. However, defensiveness can be counterproductive to good complaints handling.

One common error that often results in a complaint, or even a counter claim, is the aggressive pursuit of an outstanding fee when a patient has complained about the quality of treatment provided.

Try to establish an approach to patient care that encourages feedback about the patient’s perception of the service and the quality of care received.

7. Respond sympathetically

Complaints are best resolved at the lowest possible level, which doesn’t always mean a formal written response. Many minor complaints can be resolved on a one-to-one basis, followed by a short letter to the patient acknowledging the satisfactory resolution.

However, in most cases, a written response is likely to be appropriate. This may include an explanation, reassurance, apology, an offer of compromise or a way forward.

Remember, as a Medical Protection member you can always request assistance with complaint response letters.

8. Follow up

The hardest part of complaints handling is risking further contact with the patient to ensure the complaint is being satisfactorily resolved. This may not be appropriate in all cases, but it can be extremely helpful, particularly when you want to retain the patient’s confidence.

The follow-up is a good opportunity to display your professional concern and to rebuild a constructive relationship with the patient.

9. Learn from the problem

All complaints can teach us something. For future risk management it is helpful to consider:

»  How the complaint arose.

»  What steps could have been taken to avoid the complaint in the first place?

»  Was the complaint handled effectively?

»  Did the practice/patient achieve the desired outcome?

»  Do we need to make any changes to our procedures or protocols for the future?

» How to share any lessons learnt with the rest of the medical team.

10. Consider communication

Complaints need to be handled with:

•  speed

•  fairness to all parties

•  transparency.

A patient is more likely to accept the eventual outcome if they can see their complaint has been taken seriously and has been investigated. This fact needs to be communicated to the patient.

Research shows that patients’ expectations in complaints handling are quite low. Never delay your response to their complaint; any perceived lack of interest or care is the one thing that can transform a dissatisfied patient into an angry obsessive, seeking vengeance against the doctor.

Receiving a complaint can be a stressful time. Find out how to contact Medical Protection if a patient makes a complaint here. If you are still to join, discover the member benefits you could be utilising during difficult periods of your career.