This site is intended for health professionals only

How to cope with complaints

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.