What surgeons can do if they receive a complaint

Surgeons who receive a complaint from a patient or another clinician via the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) can seek support from the College or their medical indemnity insurance organisation.

The college has produced a Complaints User Guide to explain how it deals with complaints against its Fellows, who include cardiothoracic surgeons, general surgeons, orthopaedic surgeons, paediatric surgeons, plastic and reconstructive surgeons and vascular surgeons. 

Surgeon medical indemnity insurance

The guide says it is usual for people who make complaints to the college to want the following:

  • Acknowledgement of what happened.
  • An apology.
  • An explanation of what happened.
  • A commitment that the surgeon will change their behaviour so the same thing doesn’t happen again.

They might also want a penalty or punishment, a change in reporting lines or a transfer to a different hospital.

Complaints may involve: standards of clinical practice, conduct that affects the reputation of the profession or the college (including media reports), unacceptable behaviour such as bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment, and excessive fees.

Behaviour considered unacceptable is detailed in the Unacceptable Behaviours fact sheet available on the RACS website.

The guide suggests that surgeons treat all complaints as urgent as this improves outcomes for all parties.

The College cannot get involved in complaints related to findings or decisions made by regulators or in legal proceedings. It also cannot legally represent surgeons or trainee surgeons.

“We know that there are always at least two sides to every story. If someone has made a complaint or raised a concern about you, we encourage you to call the RACS Manager, Complaints Resolution, to discuss it,” the guide says.

It encourages surgeons to:

  • Review the allegation(s) and complainant comments.
  • Genuinely reflect on their behaviour in the circumstances.
  • Review the Code of Conduct.
  • Thoughtfully choose how to respond.
  • Write back promptly to Manager, Complaints Resolution, acknowledging the concerns explaining their perspective of what happened. “You might want to offer to apologise to the person who has raised the concern or offer a solution. If you are upset about the allegation/s that have been made and/or you are not sure what to do or how to respond, call the Manager, Complaints Resolution, for a confidential discussion.”

It discourages surgeons from:

  • Ignoring the request for a response
  • Being dismissive, aggressive or threatening
  • Over-thinking what could have been done differently. “You can’t change what has happened. You can choose how you respond and you can learn from what happened. You can also get support from the RACS Support Program and your medical defence organisation.”

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.