Patients are encouraged to complain about the service they get from their doctor and for many doctors this can seem to be personal, an attack on their core sense of self and on their vocational values.

A doctor’s response to a complaint is often similar to the stages of bereavement or similar to receiving a diagnosis of a terminal disease. Others, that the complaint is felt with such force that they literally feel a heavy weight on their chest wall.

But complaints are common. Most complaints are handled informally and even those which are not have good outcomes. Whilst complaints hurt, they do get resolved (even if the resolution is not entirely to your satisfaction).

What should you do when the complaint lands on your desk?

  1. First and foremost, do nothing. Do not respond, do not fire off an email or write a letter to the patient, even if pressurised by your employer/trainer or colleague.
  2. Do not rant and rave (not publicly anyway).
  3. If you can, take the rest of the day off. If not, organise to meet someone you trust, soon. There are deadlines to meet, processes to follow but they can wait till tomorrow or next week. Nothing needs to be done on the day of the complaint, and everything can wait until the first waves of shock have passed.
  4. Following on from this, speak to someone. A complaint (especially if potentially serious) will leave you shocked. Try not to be alone. A problem shared really is a problem halved, and at the very least will help add balance to the complaint as well as practical help in how do deal with it. Talking allows for perspective.
  5. At the earliest opportunity, contact your Medical Defence Organisation (even if the complaint is trivial), talk to colleagues, family, practice manager, support group, the practitioner health service, BMA doctors support service and/or local medical committee representative (if you are a GP) and your bank for financial advice. Do not suffer in silence.
  6. Finally, try not to take the complaint personally. A complaint does not mean you are a bad doctor. It does not negate all the good work you have done in your life. It does not make you a bad person. Remember, each one of us at some point in our career has had at least one complaint, and some of us many more. This is more about the system we are working in rather than any personal failing on the individual.

The Practitioner Health Service feels that there needs to be a New Code of Practice for Complaints for NHS staff in order to address these issues and to try and minimise the harm caused by an already stressful process. It would also ensure that there is a timely and fair response for all parties, and that there is a balance between the rights of patients and those of doctors. We are currently drafting this with the help of our patient group. You can see the draft here – if you have any comments please let us know.