Following on from our article last week that looked at how and why practices can benefit from proactively seeking feedback – especially negative feedback – this week the focus of our attention is on the need for professionalism when dealing with complaints. It’s an area that the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman says is an area some practices need to improve – it said during a recent research study that it was sadly lacking in a number of instances.
The Institute of Customer Service adds that there are numerous benefits to be obtained by dealing with complaints professionally. It says that:
- Nearly all customers would recommend an organisation to their friends if a complaint had been resolved efficiently
- Four out of five people would spread the word if a complaint had been handled badly
One of the key complaint handling methods practices often use is the local resolution meeting, yet this is one of the main complaint handling areas identified by the Ombudsman for improvement. So how can practices boost professionalism in this area?
A good starting point is to look at failings and address them. Evidence gathered by the Ombudsman shows that some practices are failing to get the best outcomes from local resolution meetings for three reasons:
- There is not a shared view of the aims and outcomes to be addressed before meetings, making it hard to agree on a resolution.
- Meetings are not always effectively run – often, they are not chaired by a senior member of staff who is adequately prepared. Sometimes a written agenda including the venue, list of attendees and their job titles, and time frames for the meeting are not agreed with the complainant in advance.
- Clarity on next steps is often missing – notes of the meeting with a covering letter confirming actions are often not shared with the complainant afterwards.
Clearly, pre-meeting preparation is crucial, as is agreeing a way forward. But for most practices, the starting point is to acknowledge, investigate and respond to complaints faster – and certainly before the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman or NHS England becomes involved.
Another piece of advice is to contact other organisations cited in complaints as quickly as possible. As we all know, it can take time to receive a response from other parties, especially at secondary care level, leaving practices to provide incomplete responses in isolation. So prioritise work order wherever possible.
The right attitude
Professionalism is also driven by attitude – it’s absolutely vital that all practice staff have the right attitude when it comes to complaint handling. And sometimes that means overcoming natural human instincts. Sometimes people immediately go on the defensive when challenged – especially if they feel they’re being blamed – which can lead to an aggressive, unprofessional response. Others retreat into their shells or try to ‘bury’ complaints.
Ultimately, what’s required is a measured, considered response where staff calmly respond to complaints in a factual, non-aggressive but not overly informal tone. Robert Campbell has addressed this topic in a previous article, which can be found here.
Often, a simple sorry is enough – and it’s worth pointing out here that medical defence organisations have stated that saying sorry is not an admission of legal liability and doctors needn’t fear it. Yet, according to a study by the Ombudsman, sorry sometimes seems to be the hardest thing to say; a third of cases it reviewed did not provide an apology where it would have been appropriate, and when apologies were given, they were not always sincere. ‘Sorry but’ and ‘sorry if’ were often used – even though it’s clearly not best practice.
Simple, clear and meaningful
Simple, clear and meaningful communication is vital to any good complaint handling. Evidence from various healthcare focused organisations suggest that practices are getting reasonably good at using lay language to explain what had happened and why. Practices can also benefit from selecting the right communication methods, as evidenced in a case study from NHS England:
Responding in writing to a verbal complaint
Mr A verbally raised various issues about the treatment he had received from his practice. These concerns ranged from the management of a sensitive medical problem, including a query as to why he was prescribed a particular medication, to being removed from the practice’s list. Mr A had seen numerous doctors during the episode in question.
The response was completed by a GP who was not directly involved with Mr A’s care. The opening section of the response clearly explained that a thorough and independent review of Mr A’s care had been undertaken. The GP thanked Mr A for making the complaint and stated that all feedback, both positive and negative, was welcomed and presented an opportunity to learn.
The response laid out exactly how the investigation had been undertaken, including a review of records as well as taking statements and speaking to staff, and included a summary of events leading to the complaint. The issue of being removed from the practice’s list was handled well and showed evidence of the practice’s policy as well as the written warnings the patient had been given.
The GP turned Mr A’s verbal complaint into a series of questions and identified learning points at the end of each section, as well as making a clear conclusion each time.
Hopefully the above provides some handy pointers for you to use when dealing with complaints. In addition, here are five rules for complaints handling suggested by the Institute of Customer Service:
- Have a strategic plan
Have a clear, flexible welcoming and open policy on complaints.
- Train your staff and management in complaints handling
Give them confidence to tackle the difficult customers and support in their actions. Excellent complaint handling isn’t easy and can sometimes be stressful and feel unrewarding. Confirm its importance in providing great patient/customer service.
- Give complaining enough priority and authority
Staff should be aware that complaints are a top priority item for your practice, and anyone who deals with them must have sufficient authority to resolve them completely.
- Ensure that you can process complaints from all sources
There are four main ways to complain – in person, by telephone, by mail, by email/internet. Your practice must be able to handle all of these efficiently.
- Set up processes to log and analyse all complaints and share with everyone
You can learn a lot about problems with internal processes, training, specific employees/managers, and product for free.
What complaint handling advice can you share? Please comment below or share it with your fellow practice managers in the forum thread here.