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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.