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Patients less likely to complain about GPs who say sorry

Patients are less likely to make a complaint about a GP mistake if they are offered a timely apology, according to a large patient poll.

A YouGov survey of 2,000 adults found that 76% of patients think complaints could be averted if the GP issued an apology.

According to the Medical Protection Society, GPs have previously worried that apologising could be interpreted as an admission of liability, but a survey of 127 GPs found these concerns are easing.

Almost three quarters of GPs (72%) said they did not think saying sorry was an admission of guilt.

Further, 86% of GPs thought an early apology could stop a complaint escalating, and four out of five thought it could restore a good doctor-patient relationship.

The MPS says that a 'challenging claims environment' means 'doctors are in fear of litigation or being reported to the GMC and the misconception that apologising puts a doctor at greater risk of a complaint or claim has been difficult to quash'.

But Dr Helen Hartley, medicolegal advisor at MPS said: ‘We know that apologising to patients and their relatives following an adverse outcome can be difficult in practice… But apologies can help prevent formal complaints occurring or escalating.

‘Saying sorry is not an admission of liability; rather, it is an acknowledgment that something has gone wrong and a way of expressing empathy.’

GMC Good Medical Practice guidance includes a statutory duty of candour for doctors to apologise when things go wrong.

And, following a review of complaints about practices, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman this year advised GPs to apologise more and invite patients to feed back and complain to a greater extent.

But the calls come as a recent study called for ‘significant changes’ to NHS complaints handling processes. Evidence suggested the current system is 'unnecessarily confrontational', with just 6% of doctors describing a complaint as a 'learning process' and half feeling negativity, powerlessness and emotional distress.

In light of concerns, GMC is looking to reduce probes into 'one-off' clinical incidents in a move that it hopes will reduce the number of full fitness-to-practice (FtP) investigations by the hundreds.

Readers' comments (10)

  • Sorry for being overworked, sorry for trying to support a cash starved NHS, sorry for having to mop up secondary care's inadequacies, sorry for not meeting all your ridiculous demands, sorry, sorry, sorry.

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  • “Sincerity - if you can fake that, you've got it made.”

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  • Agree completely - we all get things wrong and admitting this only strengthens the doctor patient relationship. I always tell patients if something was missed or I made a mistake and it has stood me in good stead for over 30 years.

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  • Spuds

    I'm going to file this under "no s**t Sherlock"

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  • Apologising up front when you've dropped the ball is a no brainer.
    Far trickier are the frivolous/speculative complaints where you know you did no wrong. Saying sorry in these cases (presumably in an attempt to placate the complainant) would be seized upon as an admission of guilt and be very foolish, unless along the lines of "I'm sorry you felt you were treated poorly, but let me assure you I did nothing wrong", which I doubt would help much.........

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  • i fully agree . saying sorry" i made a mistake" does help a lot. if patient trusts you they forgive you. good relation with patient is the key. good communication and good clinical input will keep you away from complaint.

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  • I am sorry that I became a GP-I did not realise at the time. I made the decision in good faith, we all make mistakes.

    Yours Sincerely......

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  • Apologies when you make an error - fine. But the medicolegal teams sole interests are to ensure that a complaint goes nowhere, and I've detected an increasing demand from them to have us apologise even when we have done nothing wrong, and even in cases where we are wronged (eg the abusive complainant).

    What the MDOs do not care about in the slightest is the gradual erosion of morale that occurs every-time we are forced to apologise for no fault incurred. This needs to be considered by them (but as they only care about profits, its unlikely that will happen).

    Complaints are rare but extremely stressful events, and as they become more frivolous, Im less likely to continue.

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  • Knowledge is Porridge

    Easy to lance this boil by removing the option of litigation as a condition of receiving free NHS care.
    But if we are all in it for ourselves I may as well locum for the biggest buck, or move to Australia.

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  • I am utterly fed up of the complete acquiescence of MDOs to treat every patient complaint as a 'learning event'

    Some are.

    Many are not. Many are driven by vexatious, frivolous spiteful people who demand the impossible, or are addicted to drugs, and who use the overburdensome NHS complaints procedure as a cosh to inclucare fear to get what they want.

    MDOs only care about the bottom line. They have no interest if the emotional or mental health of the doctor is damaged by the process, and far too often they are advising GPS to acquiesce in the hope of avoiding financial risk. They need to factor this in.

    But they won't. They are part of the industry that feeds on the regulation of those who work at the coalface.

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