Golden rules if faced with a patient complaint

We are often asked what our golden rules are for surgeons faced with patient complaints. Here they are!

Do inform your medical indemnity insurers immediately, even if you think the complaint is unmeritorious or trivial. Our members have access to a 24/7 notification and medico-legal helpline, so there is always someone to assist with getting the necessary information to insurers straight away. Then keep insurers updated on any developments and seek guidance on any proposed responses to the patient, especially written ones.

Don't get ambushed. If a patient on the telephone or in person demands your response immediately, try not to get drawn into making comments on the complaint straight away. Take as many details of the grievance as you can and then confirm that you understand their concerns and will investigate and respond urgently. The key thing is to give yourself the breathing space to gather the facts and your thoughts, and to contact your medical indemnity insurers.

Do be open to the option of paying a small sum of money or refunding fees to your patient, with your medical indemnity insurers’ agreement. Paying a relatively modest settlement payment at the outset can save you a large amount of time and money further down the line. These settlement agreements don’t necessarily require you to admit you were in the wrong. There can be other benefits too, such as giving you the opportunity to bind the claimant to confidentiality and non-publicity clauses so that they cannot harm your reputation.

Do act quickly. A speedy response may mollify your patient and reassure him or her that you are taking the complaint seriously.

Do keep the lines of communication open. Just because a claim is made does not mean you should refuse to speak to the patient. If you can maintain a civil relationship this can help to encourage early amicable resolution.

Do consider if an apology is appropriate. If worded appropriately (and authorised by your medical indemnity insurers), this could be very helpful in reaching a resolution.

Don’t put the complaint in a drawer and ignore it. It will not go away, and will come back bigger and more difficult to resolve.

Don’t get cross! You may want to tell your patient what you think of them, but this may simply provoke them into escalating the complaint towards a formal claim or court proceedings.

This article is an extract of a more detailed and extensive guidance note available only to Incision members