Ten steps to handling complaints
A complaint can happen to any medical professional at any time. When facing a complaint, it is reassuring to be able to call on the support of a medical defence organization. At Medical Protection, we aim to reduce the chance of complaints through education and support of our members, and have helped many members in cases where a complaint has been made.
No two complaints are the same. Medical Protection therefore takes a flexible approach to handling complaints. We recommend following our 10-step approach to help get the best resolution for our members.
1) Train and prepare colleagues
Good communicators usually make good complaint handlers. Most members of your medical team likely have no formal training in communication or complaints handling, so train them in these skills. Untrained staff can then direct all complaints to the nearest trained complaints handler.
Enquire with your medical defence organization about opportunities to train and prepare your colleagues in complaints handling. Medical Protection members can sign up for communication training to assist with complaints handling, as a benefit of membership.
2) Actively identify complaints
Take a proactive approach to identifying complaints. Most dissatisfied patients do not complain – they simply leave and go elsewhere, which is not good for business.
The aim is to encourage patients to tell you if they have a problem, before they tell someone else. There are many ways of identifying dissatisfaction:
· Prominently display your complaints procedure.
· Train all staff to identify the ‘body language’ associated with dissatisfaction.
· Provide comment or feedback cards.
· Use patient surveys for those who wish to respond.
3) Accept complaints
Acknowledge all complaints quickly and give patients a copy of the complaints procedure. This will tell them about the stages of the process you have adopted and when they might expect a formal response.
Patients are more likely to react favourably if they know their complaint has been heard and is being dealt with, even if a slight delay is unavoidable.
Take a moment to empathize with the patients and see things from their perspective.
4) Get the view of all parties involved
It is important for the complaints co-ordinator to include all the relevant people in the process:
· Identify all parties involved and seek their views.
· Co-ordinate the response so that everyone knows his/her role in the complaints process.
5) Investigate fully
A frequent mistake in complaints handling is to provide a detailed response before the investigation has finished and all the facts have been gathered.
Remember that any response to a complaint could subsequently be used as part of a different process by the patient. Don’t be over-hasty in your response. Get the facts straight and think it through. It is worth spending some time at this stage to formulate a good response, which can reduce the chance of matters being escalated in the longer term.
6) Resolve the dissatisfaction
It is understandable to become defensive when receiving a complaint, especially if it is seen as unreasonable or unfair. However, defensiveness can be counterproductive to good complaints handling, and can increase the risk of matters escalating.
One common error that often results in a complaint, or even a claim, is the aggressive pursuit of an outstanding fee when a patient has complained about the quality of treatment provided.
Try to establish an approach to patient care that encourages feedback about the patient’s experience of the service and the quality of care received.
7) Respond sympathetically
Complaints are best resolved at the earliest opportunity, which does not always mean that a formal written response is required. Many minor complaints can be resolved verbally on a one-to-one basis, followed by a short letter to the patient acknowledging the satisfactory resolution.
However, in most cases, a written response is likely to be appropriate. This may include an explanation, reassurance, apology, or a way forward.
Enquire with your medical defence organization about assistance with complaint response letters.
8) Follow up
It may feel uncomfortable to reach out to a patient following a complaint, but it can be extremely helpful, particularly when you want to retain the patient’s confidence.
The follow-up is a good opportunity to display your professional concern and to rebuild a constructive relationship with the patient.
9) Learn from the problem
All complaints can teach us something. For future risk management, it is helpful to consider both issues arising from the complaint itself, and issues arising from the actual incident:
· How and why did the complaint arise?
· What steps could have been taken to avoid the complaint in the first place?
· Are there any learning points identified from the issues which led to the complaint?
· Was the complaint itself handled effectively?
· Did the practice/patient achieve the desired outcome?
· Do we need to make any changes to our procedures or protocols for the future?
· How to share any lessons learnt with the rest of the medical team?
10) Consider communication
Complaints need to be handled with efficiency, fairness to all parties, and transparency.
Patients are more likely to accept the eventual outcome if they can see that their complaint has been taken seriously and has been investigated. Understanding that lessons have been learned and any necessary changes have been made can reassure the patient. Many patients raise concerns to minimize the chance of other people experiencing issues they have faced.
Good complaints handling can minimize the chance of a complaint being escalated and progressing to the Medical Council or even a claim in negligence. Taking time and effort to listen to and act on concerns can be truly beneficial to patients and staff alike.