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Dealing with complaints

Post date: 15/03/2017 | Time to read article: 2 mins

The information within this article was correct at the time of publishing. Last updated 14/11/2018

Kirsty Plowman considers how complaints can affect you and offers tips for tackling any you may receive

Just about anything can, and does, go wrong in hospital practice: patients or their relatives might complain or sue for compensation; colleagues may fail to keep up-to-date with the latest training and expose patients to risk, or in extreme situations, an error on your part could lead to your colleagues calling your medical competency in to question and reporting you to the GMC or trust, leading to disciplinary proceedings being brought against you.

Ensure that you understand exactly what the complaint is about – don’t attempt to offer any explanation until you’re sure you know what happened.

GMC guidance

In Good Medical Practice, the GMC says, “You must respond promptly, fully and honestly to complaints and apologise when appropriate. You must not allow a patient’s complaint to adversely affect the care or treatment you provide or arrange.”1

Doctors who fail to comply with this guidance could face sanctions affecting their registration.

The NHS complaints procedure

The principle underlying the NHS complaints procedure is that patients (or their relatives) who express concern that something has gone wrong should be given a speedy and full response, setting out all the facts and, where appropriate, accompanied by an apology. The procedure also includes learning from the complaint and making any needed improvements to services that the complaint has brought to light.

Top tips for handling a complaint

  1. Ensure that you understand exactly what the complaint is about – don’t attempt to offer any explanation until you’re sure you know what happened.
  2. Maintain an empathetic and professional attitude throughout.
  3. Don’t be slow to apologise if a deficiency in care has occurred (acknowledgement and apology for shortfalls in care prevent many more claims than stonewalling and prevarication).
  4. Be open and straightforward – cagey or evasive answers are a sure way to make complainants suspicious that they are not being told the whole truth.
  5. In complaints processes, as in any part of professional practice, patient confidentiality should be maintained, and confidential information not disclosed unless you have the appropriate authority to do so.
  6. Tell the complainant how the process works, who the contact person at the trust will be and how long it is likely to be before the trust will be in contact with them. Current regulations state that the complaint must be acknowledged within three working days of receipt, at which time the trust should agree a timeframe with the complainant.
  7. If, as a result of the complaint, action is taken to avoid the same thing happening to someone else, tell the complainant – it’s often one of their prime concerns.


  1. GMC, Good Medical Practice, 2013

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