Unfortunately, complaints (whether reasonable or not) from patients are almost inevitable. Complaints could stem from the treatment itself, whether due to unfortunate complications or errors in the surgery, or clinical care. Some patients complain about the surgeon’s behaviour. Administration issues such as invoicing or scheduling of appointments is also a regular topic. Therefore, it is imperative that surgeons, and all members of practice staff, are able to deal with complaints effectively to minimise the time they take up, any damage to the doctor/patient relationship, as well as any subsequent reputational damage.
All surgeons should have a written complaints policy for their private practice. It is CQC requirement. A written complaints policy also benefits the surgeon. They can give patients comfort that they can voice concerns and be taken seriously. They can also help to manage the expectations of patients – some demand an immediate response even on complex issues, but this is simply not feasible.
A written complaint policy does not have to be long or complex. The key is to set out the steps you will take, together with the timescales. For example, say when you will acknowledge the complaint (eg, within three days of receipt), and when the substantive response will arrive (eg, within 14 days). Once you have created your written complaints procedure, make sure that all your patients and staff know where to find it.
When responding to a complaint you need to set out an honest and accurate response, expressed in a suitably courteous tone, even where your conclusion is that the complaint is baseless. Where the complaint actually has merit, it is important than you apologise and accept your mistake. Put simply, mistakes do occur and it is better that surgeons/the practice accept these mistakes rather than attempt to hide them, mislead the patient and breach the GMC Good Practice Guidelines. Alternatively, if you find that the complaint has no merit, then you should of course state this and explain why, albeit without appearing dismissive.
The other key thing is to notify your insurers. Depending on your indemnity arrangements, you may be obliged to notify your insurer/indemnifier about the complaint to comply with the terms and conditions and protect your position in case the matter ever develops into a claim and you need indemnity. Contacting your insurers can also be helpful for you, because you can gain access to any medico-legal assistance provided by your indemnifier. Incision members have access to a medico-legal helpline service staffed by specialist dual-qualified doctors and lawyers, who will assist on responding to the complaint, and notifying your insurers if needed.