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At the heart of general practice since 1960

It's the listening that counts

There are some patients Phil knows he will never cure of their perceived ills, but a sympathetic ear goes a long way - and helps keep complaints at bay

There are some patients Phil knows he will never cure of their perceived ills, but a sympathetic ear goes a long way - and helps keep complaints at bay

I'm a nice doctor. That might come as a surprise to regular readers of this column, but it's a fact. It is true that I've been investigated by the GMC on two or three occasions (not that they found anything to concern themselves about) but they were all as a result of things I've written on this page. My clinical record is squeaky clean (I find myself touching wood at this point) and I haven't suffered an official complaint from a patient in a decade.

On average, in this day and age, a GP can expect to receive a complaint from a patient about two or three times a year. This is an incredibly depressing statistic.

I know a couple of GPs who aren't GPs any more, as a result of malicious and damaging complaints that have literally destroyed their careers. And neither was found guilty of anything. Their lives were not exactly ruined, but they have taken very different directions to the ones they had planned. And general practice has been deprived of two dedicated practitioners. They weren't cheap to train, either.

There are a number of reasons why I think I haven't been the target of patient complaints. In descending order, they are:

  • blind luck
  • the touching, old-fashioned, respectful attitude of our patients, many of whom still appear to be living in the 1950s, and
  • my early realisation, from reading something in a medical defence journal, that in the region of 80% of complaints in general practice are a result of GPs being arrogant gits who don't listen to patients.

Although the first two of these reasons are in the lap of the Gods, we do have the ability to influence the third.

I saw a patient this morning who has just joined our practice. She arrived with so much baggage I am surprised she wasn't accompanied by a couple of porters. She's an overweight, ageing, divorced bottle-blonde who is under the impression she has fibromyalgia and depression, and is on the rebound from her last GP, about whom she is currently locked in the complaints procedure. I have every sympathy for him. And for me, for that matter.

'I don't know where to start,' she started.

'Start where you like,' I riposted. Within 30 seconds I had classified her as one of those people Theodore Dalrymple has expertly nailed as 'people who don't know how to live'. The complexities of human relationships are beyond her, the aging process is an opaque mystery and she can't understand why permanent happiness is beyond her means, even though it is patently beyond the means of everyone on the planet.

'I think this has been very productive,' I told her as she got up to leave. And it was; the drugs I prescribed for her were a bloody sight cheaper than the ones she had been on before. 'Think about what I said and we'll talk again in four weeks.'

I doubt she'll think about what I said. If she does she'll realise I said almost nothing at all. But I listened, that's the important thing, and that's why she arrived full of resentment and left with a grateful tear.

I know I'll never be rid of her. I know I'll never cure her of any of her perceived ailments, as they don't exist. I'm just doing what thousands of expert GPs do every day; keeping a lid on the bubbling lunacy that afflicts our society. I'll give her 20 minutes a month, and after that 20 minutes I'll be grateful I can walk away and be me, while she has to walk away and be her. I won't get a medal for it, because if I did, all 40,000 of us would have to have one too.

Dr Phil Peverley is a GP in Sunderland

Phil Peverley

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