How to Handle a Patient Complaint

male doctor holding stethoscope

Patients make medical complaints for a variety of reasons. They may complain because their treatment didn’t go as expected, they didn’t receive sufficient information or they were unhappy with the care they received.

The majority of health care complaints do not warrant further investigation or are often the result of misunderstanding. Many can be resolved with an apology or conciliation; only around one in ten complaints are associated with allegations of negligence or professional misconduct.

Health care complaints may be made to you directly from the patient, via a colleague or


your supervisor. If you receive a complaint directly from a patient you should deal with it as soon as it comes to your attention.

All patient complaints should be taken seriously. Without admitting wrongdoing you can let the patient know you are sorry they have concerns and that their concerns will be addressed. When meeting with a complainant, consider whether an interpreter will be required and also offer them the opportunity to bring a support person.

When considering how to handle a patient complaint first check if the organisation you work for has a procedure for handling such complaints and follow the procedure where appropriate.

This may involve referring the patient to a designated staff member who will address the issue, establish the scope of the complaint and determine the patient’s desired outcome. Depending on the nature of the complaint, you may be obliged to notify your medical indemnity insurer of the issues, particularly if you intend to answer the complaint in writing.

Complaints that reach you by other means, particularly via a court document or other formal notice should be forwarded to your medical indemnity insurer immediately.

Health care complaints via a medical registration board mean that in most instances you are legally prohibited from contacting the complainant directly.

In other instances, the complainant should be notified that their complaint has been received and is being dealt with. Patients may become more irritated if they perceive their medical complaint hasn’t been taken seriously or if there is a communication breakdown.

Dealing with negative feedback from patients can be stressful, particularly on receipt of the complaint and during the complaints process.

Such stress can interfere with personal and professional life, and can affect your health, and may not be fully eliminated once the complaint has been dealt with. It is therefore advisable to deal with complaints as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The organisation you work for may provide access to a staff counsellor who can assist you through the process. If you are at all unsure how to handle a patient complaint, seek advice from your medical indemnity insurer or your supervisor.