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Why communication and complaints go hand-in-hand

by in Complaints

Complaints. It goes without saying that nobody likes receiving them, and they can seriously dent practice morale. However, if handled in the right way, complaints can be a good thing for your practice – which is something we’ll explore in this blog.

The good news when it comes to complaints is that the total number of written complaints about practices in England is decreasing. The total number of complaints filed in 2018 to 2019 – 75,782 – is down almost 5% compared to the year before. That’s 3,500 less complaints practices had to worry about. Interestingly, NHS Digital data reveals that the proportion of upheld complaints also decreased, painting a pretty encouraging picture. This is all the more impressive given the CQC earlier this year launched a campaign encouraging patients to complain about GP services to improve standards of care.

However, complaints do still happen, so what can be done to ensure you deal with complaints as and when they do arise.

Cause and effect

The first place to look is the reasoning behind the complaints received in the last year. Most complaints in general practice in the past year relate to communications (14%), followed by staff attitude/behaviour/values (13%) and clinical treatment (12%). The top ten reasons for complaints are:

  1. Communications
  2. Staff attitude/behaviour/values
  3. Clinical treatment, including errors
  4. Appointment availability/length
  5. Prescription issues
  6. Obtaining an appointment
  7. Waiting time for appointment
  8. Delay in failure to refer
  9. Repeat prescription process
  10. Delay in diagnosis


For GPs in particular, patient expectations are increasing and, as has been said before, a 10-minute appointment can leave patients feeling hurried – and that communication hasn’t been great.

Writing for an article in the BMJ, Wedad Abdelrahman said: “There is increasing evidence that poor communication and lack of empathy are major causes of adverse events, patient dissatisfaction, and, therefore, complaints. Challenges in communication can arise between doctors and patients from different backgrounds. Moreover, at least 25% of doctors practising in the UK don’t have English as their first language, and the language barrier in these circumstances creates an additional obstacle.”

Interestingly, Wedad says that while communication is often the cause of a complaint, it’s also the focus of any resolution.

“You should walk away from a complaint acknowledging why it was made; what went wrong; what you did wrong; ways it could have been prevented; and what could be done differently next time. It is important to engage in the process – not react defensively – and provide a rational response within the timescale provided,” he added.

“Remember, if a complaint is a result of poor communication or even delivery of substandard care, all the patient may be looking for is reassurance that failings are acknowledged, and mistakes aren’t repeated. Better communication with patients and better management of their expectations can avoid escalation of simple problems. “Sorry” may be all that a patient wants to hear.”

Learning from the corporate world

Those thoughts have been echoed by a number of customer service professionals we’ve spoken to for this article, who point out that GP practices can learn a lot from the world of commerce and service delivery when it comes to complaint handling.

Here are some key pointers to help:

Don’t let emotions get the better of you: calmly listen (or read) to what people are saying, then just as calmly reply and react to them. Don’t jump to a rapid response either – be considered.

Avoid being confrontational: it’s easy and human nature to jump to a defensive position, although this won’t help you in your efforts to diffuse a patient. “If in doubt, thank the patient for making the complaint,” one expert suggested. For example, you can tell them right off the bat that you appreciate them taking the time to talk to you about their concern and you want to make sure you understand exactly what they are saying. This opens up the opportunity for you to further listen to them, while hopefully giving them the understanding that you want to actually hear what they have to say.

Flexibility is crucial: People respond differently to each other, so be flexible with your response. This means judging a situation and a person’s response. Listening and watching to people is therefore key. Sometimes a sorry is enough, other times it might be about booking another appointment or showing how you will escalate the issue. Complaints policies are very helpful, but some movement must be built into them.

Be heard: After offering a resolution or identifying what you can – or cannot do – to accommodate any requests, ask the patient if they have understood what you said. Make sure you do this in a non-demeaning way, but rather state your intent. Very simply, after all has been discussed, ask if they have understood how you can help them or for that matter, how you are unable to do anything else to accommodate them.

Act quickly: Don’t let things linger as, more often than not, the problem won’t just go away. Try to respond as quickly as you can.

Stay true to your word: After you’ve said you’re sorry and reached agreement around a resolution, deliver what you’ve said you will. Failure to act will see the problem return.

Move on: When all is said and done, you can’t dwell on complaints – after all, you need to move on and forward with your next tasks on hand. Most practices are bound to get them every now and again since very simply, you can’t please everyone. This said, if complaints are a normal routine, you need to dwell on them – complaints can sometimes be the best form of feedback!


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Practice Index

Practice Index

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