The knee-jerk reaction to complaints is often to view them as negative and respond accordingly. However, given that 1.4% of the 619,509 health practitioners registered in 2013-2014 were the subject of a formal complaint made to the health regulators, it is statistically probable that every practitioner will receive at least one complaint during his or her professional career. It is therefore worthwhile taking the time to respond appropriately. Complaints can come from a variety of sources other than patients – colleagues, other health professionals, staff and relatives.
If approached in a neutral, insightful manner, complaints can be a useful tool for identifying areas for improvement both at a personal performance level and also practice-wide. This information sheet explores a suggested approach for dealing with all complaints, informal or otherwise.
The optimal way to respond to a complaint is to provide your best response at the earliest opportunity. This will help to prevent escalation to formal complaints to the NSW Healthcare Complaints Commission (HCCC) or the relevant Health Council of NSW.
If you are in private practice, it may be worth ensuring there is a comprehensive policy for dealing with complaints and that all staff members are fully briefed on its application. While it is not possible to prescribe a standardised response to all complaints, due to variations in subject matter and complexity, below are some suggestions about a way forward:
Although it may be tempting to procrastinate and instead prioritise your paperwork, the complainant will only feel more aggrieved if their complaint is not responded to within a reasonable time. An initial acknowledgement will let them know you have received it and you can respond more fully shortly thereafter.
If for some reason you think you cannot respond within, say 30 days, it may be worthwhile informing them of this.
If you are struggling to address it personally, seek assistance and advice from a colleague, employer or a professional association.
Be clear about the problem
If you are unclear about the complainant’s concerns or what they hope to achieve, ask further questions until you are able to address all aspects of their complaint.
Once you are clear about the nature of the complaint, gather the relevant information and be prepared to share it openly.
Try to stick to the facts and provide a full but succinct picture about the circumstances of the complaint. Try to identify the key issues and stick to what is strictly relevant. Present your response in neutral terms.
Arrange a face-to-face meeting
Depending on the subject matter of the complaint, a face-to-face meeting is often a good way to proceed, provided that you remain calm and open. It may assist to hold it on neutral ground and to invite them to bring a support person. View the meeting as a way to discuss the matter, hear their side of things.
Acknowledge things which may not have been optimal and consider how these could be improved
Address all questions or aspects of the complaint. Often a good way to do this is to restate back what you perceive is the problem before you try to find a solution. If appropriate, apologise. Sometimes some empathy is all the complainant wants.
Keep matters confidential and private
It is not in the interests of the complainant or your professionalism for the complaint to become public knowledge. Deal with the matter sensitively.
Keep your word
Ensure that any agreed outcomes are carried out in a timely manner.
If you feel that the complaint has created a conflict, be open about this and suggest another practitioner who can continue treatment. Try to frame it by reference to the best way for them to receive future treatment rather than assigning blame. Also note that it may not be appropriate for you to end the therapeutic relationship if there is no alternative available to the patient or if to do so would not be in their best interests.
Guidance available to health practitioners
All national boards for the 14 regulated health professions have a code of conduct available on their website. These set out the expectations for all health professionals when dealing with adverse events and the need for open disclosure. Many also specifically address the profession’s expectations when a complaint or notification is made.
How can we help?
If you are looking for information or help in resolving a complaint, we can help you navigate the process. Our health team is highly respected and has accumulated more than 25 years of specialist knowledge including dealing with complaints.
*The material provided in our information sheets is for general knowledge only and is not a substitute for independent legal advice. For further information about the issues affecting you, please contact one of our experienced and professional lawyers for expert advice.