10 tips for effective handling of patient complaints

Formal complaints against psychiatrists, surgeons, obstetricians/gynaecologists, GPs and other doctors are on the rise and clinicians are increasingly turning to their medical indemnity insurance providers for support.

For example, the Victoria Health Complaints Commissioner received 1244 complaints against medical practitioners in the 2017-18 financial year, 18% more than in 2016-17.

In NSW, the number of complaints against medical practitioners increased from 2298 in 2016-17 to 2553 in the 2018 financial year. That’s a 52% increase from the 1673 complaints in 2013-14.

Doctors who have an effective complaint handling process in place can often resolve issues quickly and easily and can protect themselves from being referred to a formal process.

According to Victoria’s Health Complaints Act 2016, a doctor must:

  •    Promptly acknowledge complaints and make appropriate attempts to resolve them.
  •    Provide information on how to make a complaint to health service consumers in an accessible and understandable form.
  •    Inform those who have made a complaint of the complaint’s progress and its outcome.
  •    Keep personal information collected in the course of a complaint in a confidential manner.
  •    Keep a record of all complaints, including any action taken in managing them.

Communication issues underpin most complaints, and most complainants are simply looking for an explanation or apology, says the Victoria Health Complaints Commissioner.

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Here are 10 tips for effective complaints handling:

  1. Your complaint process should be easy and straightforward.
  2. All complaints of a medical nature should be managed directly by a doctor. Other complaints can be managed by administrative staff.
  3. Complaints should be acknowledged promptly, and the complainant should be told how their complaint will be handled and in what timeframe.
  4. Be empathetic and try not to be defensive.
  5. Ensure you understand the complaint and that the complainant understands the information you are sharing. Consider cultural background and possible use of interpreters.
  6. Ascertain what resolution the complainant is seeking.
  7. Treat your complainants with objectivity and respect.
  8. If the complainant is not satisfied with your response, you should provide information about available internal or external review options.
  9. Any systemic issues should be considered and resolved.
  10. Provide a full response so that important issues are answered and the complainant can see that the complaint has been taken seriously.

Tego understands that complaints, claims and litigation can be stressful for medical and healthcare professionals, and has a 24-hour support hotline for clients: 1300 938 991.

The hotline is staffed by lawyers and provides expert counselling aimed at helping clients get through a claim or complaint quickly and strategically, so you can get back to providing healthcare with a clear mind.

This publication is general in nature and is not comprehensive or constitute legal or medical advice. You should seek legal, medical or other professional advice before relying on any content, and practice proper clinical decision making with regard to individual circumstances. Persons implementing any recommendations contained in this publication must exercise their own independent skill or judgment or seek appropriate professional advice relevant to their own particular practice. Compliance with any recommendations will not in any way guarantee discharge of the duty of care owed to patients and others coming into contact with the health professional or practice. Tego Insurance Pty Ltd is not responsible to you or anyone else for any loss su­ffered in connection with the use of this information.