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How to cope with complaints

Dr Max Henderson, honorary consultant liaison psychiatrist at the Practitioner Health Programme, outlines his top tips for dealing with a complaint

1. Share the problem

Don’t put the complaint letter away and forget about it. Share it, quickly, with people you trust. Tell them you’re upset. Many will have experienced such situations and valuable nuggets of wisdom and advice are likely to emerge. Keep talking throughout the process, which may be long and drawn out. 

2. Listen

Be prepared to take advice that is not immediately attractive. A conciliatory meeting may be more effective than fighting the complaint head-on. Listen to what the complainant is saying. What remedy are they seeking? Most want an explanation, more information, an apology. Listen to your defence organisation. Finally, listen to yourself. Are you ordering too many investigations or referring too many patients? Have you lost your confidence or enthusiasm?

3. Focus on positive actions

Do not waste energy on the unfairness of the situation or ask ‘Why me?’ Focus on activities where you still perceive a sense of control, such as teaching or CPD. Remember too that your other patients appreciate and still need you. Maintain your normal routine – don’t miss sleep, exercise, meals or time with loved ones. Control your alcohol intake. 

4. Know where you stand

Identify all the necessary documentation, including your organisation’s policies and, where necessary, the clinical records. Know what the timescales are and to whom you must respond. Keep records of all conversations, letters and emails.

5. Maintain your own health

Making an objective assessment of your own mental health is difficult. Have a low threshold for speaking to your own GP. Even if they think you are well, that is both reassuring and a useful benchmark. Organisations such as the Practitioner Health Programme, MedNet and House Concern have specific expertise in managing doctors experiencing the distress of a complaint, and the earlier you engage, the more assistance they can provide.

6. Reassure yourself

Remember that almost all complaint episodes are resolved and both parties are able to move on.

Dr Max Henderson is honorary consultant liaison psychiatrist at the Practitioner Health Programme.

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Readers' comments (8)

  • missed the point here
    Are you ordering too many investigations or referring too many patients?
    this is due to pressure from the regulator - read the articles about what happens when you do not investigate. Its sad but you have to investigate. this is what is stressing and burning out doctors

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  • Remember most complainants who have not had the opportunity to resolve the complaint will also be stressed and further made angry by being made to 'go through hoops'. According to Islington Healthwatch 2/3 of people who have been dissatisfied never make a complaint anyway - significantly because they don't know how. It takes a massive amount of emotional energy increased by the need to learn how to go about it , to make a complaint.Don't be tempted to take advantage of the person's necessary ignorance of the system, don't scapegoat the person with colleagues who will not know both sides of the situation, treat complainants as you would want to be treated yourself. Give information, knowledge of the system, opportunity to genuinely put things right by being open and honest. Do not assume the complainant is always wrong. Prevaricating, being less than honest, playing power games with a person who has less knowlege or influence or support will only exacerbate the situation

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  • ok back to reality ...

    1. Share the problem

    watch as all your colleagues avoid you as they don't want to share the blame. listen as people who have an axe to grind take the oppurtunity to throw some accusations your way. be dumbfounded as your managers try to find any other issues to add to your problems. be amazed by how little support you will receive except from your defense body

    2. Listen

    and do what you are told. accept the blame even if you are an innocent party. apologise profusely even if you have nothing to apologise for.

    3. Focus on positive actions

    at least you haven't been sent to the firing squad (yet - until it becomes new GMC policy)

    4. Know where you stand
    - if you are a foreign doctor or BME you are stuffed. expect your face in the Mail with lots of negative comments. expect to be guilty until proven innocent - even then you will still be guilty as mud sticks. expect no compensation or apology.


    5. Maintain your own health

    retire, emigrate or change career.

    6. Reassure yourself

    ... that things are only going to get worse

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  • Worryingly poor advice.

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  • The advice is very amateurish and would not be very useful to anybody in a real situation,...eg talk to people you can trust....if you confide in a GP s/he is bound to keep notes and, other members of 'the team', including admin staff will read them. If accepting psychological help all therapists etc should have a supervisor..there is no such thing as total confidentiality. Who are 'the many' in a medics life who will have experienced the same problem? Most would keep it quiet anyway. re focus on other things such as training or CPD,most medics do the day to day business in surgeries, they don't have the time or means or contacts to develop 'portfolios' even if they wanted to. Neither would a person being investigated be wise necessarily to take on yet more work .......... Get together all the paperwork...too vague ...what exactly would be helpful? ditto ......keep all letters etc - they would be handled by admin in the first place. Make sure no files go missing. Don't send letters striking complainants off the register via a letter .there is now a formal way of doing that ..but nobody on either side should carry on the relationship when trust has broken down..that is a step too far .there is no reference in the article to say what proportion of complaints are resolved - they would have to be quite minor for them to be resolved quickly. Many medics and complainants are let down by the systems in place - if possible talk to people anonymously in the first place, don't just talk to one person or a group of colleagues or an organisation who may close up up once a decision is made to confide, so that your account is out there , check their credentials, networks etc as much as possible. Many of the lessons learned by whistleblowers regarding trust in systems can be usefully applied........ Some individuals are more dispensible than others. Finally be true to the truth, conciliation is fine if both sides are satisfied, if not it can rankle and generate cynicism which will likely effect future practice

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  • I guess as people are always complaining over trivial stuff it eventually becomes water off a ducks back, people are never going to write letters of appreciation

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  • Nurse anon.be careful not to dismiss 'trivial' complaints.....they can escalate if not dealt with but on the whole it's the complaints categorised as serious that are the cause of dis/stress......right now it's the lack of appropriate explanation of deaths in hospitals that's top of the agenda for investigators

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  • What a load of crap.Firstly there is NO support from anyone , and even appraisers use them to attack a good Dr . Patients perceive getting the things they want is "their rights " as they pay "their taxes " thereby making you do things you feel uncomfortable doing eg extending sick notes , giving them AB when they demand them otherwise they threaten to send in complaints .Who is piggy in the middle ?

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