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How to respond to complaints

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Giving patients the opportunity to raise queries cuts complaints, says Kay Fawcett

When a patient or carer complains about their care experience, this is a monumental effort for them. To make contact by letter or speak to you takes time and effort and any member of staff who receives such communication should recognise this.

Prevention is better than cure, and it’s vital to teach staff to be alert to the patients in their care and spend time listening to their worries and fears. This is increasingly important to patients.

Within University Hospitals Birmingham, a local patient experience survey reviews patients’ views of their particular experience.

It has been recognised that active patient communication is the only way to support this. Hourly care rounds by members of staff have been adopted, which give patients an opportunity to raise any questions or queries in a timely manner.

This aims to reduce or eliminate the number of times the patient, relative or carer has to raise complaints after discharge, which can be both distressing and tortuous for a patient.

The hospital staff may believe they have done nothing wrong, but personal perception is powerful and influences experience of care at the time and in the future.

When receiving complaints, you need to respond to them in an accurate and timely way, and demonstrate remorse where failings are identified and learning where possible.

You will only do this if you can accurately identify the issues the complainant is raising, so clarify the situation by telephone, meetings and written responses to ensure the means of resolution is suitable to the complainant, involving staff who delivered the care where possible.

Identify those who delivered the care to obtain an accurate reflection of the circumstances so you can use any contemporaneous notes of events. Involve the staff to get an accurate view of the situation from their perspective so you can understand and acknowledge the impact of their actions on the patients in their care.

It may seem harsh, but being involved in such responses encourages staff to deal with issues when they occur and makes them more aware of the effects of their communication and actions at the point of care. You can also involve them in meetings to discuss what happened and offer learning opportunities.

Most complainants are hoping that their concerns are acknowledged quickly, their fears allayed, apologies provided and that learning has been achieved.

Kay Fawcett is executive chief nurse at University Hospitals Birmingham Foundation Trust, where she leads on patient experience including complaints. She has been a nurse for 34 years and has experience in clinical, managerial and educational positions. She is a member of the The Association of UK University Hospitals


Tips on complaints

  • Deal with all complaints as close to the point of care as possible
  • Always listen to or read the issues carefully to ensure the complainant’s real concerns are being explored - not what you perceive them to be
  • Manage the response to complaints in a timely manner and ensure the complainant is satisfied
  • Ensure that complaints are used for learning and to improve the quality of care delivered to prevent events being repeated
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Readers' comments (1)

  • michael stone

    NHS complaints handling, within large organisations, tends to be pretty unsatisfactory from th eperspective of learning from the feedback.

    Having tried this - in connection with an EoLC problem, which was hideously complicated - my experience, as an ex-family carer, can be summed up thus:

    1 If you attempt to offer informal feedback, nobody pays any attention;

    2 If you make a formal complaint, everybody within the organisation immediately becomes focused of ensuring that 'I personally, don't get any of the blame for this' - any concept of 'impartial investigation' immediately disappears;

    3 There is an inherent assumption, within clinical circles, that clinicians must understand the problems, and that 'the amateurs' do not understand the problems - this is not invariably true !

    4 It works much better, if both sides ask each other questions, and answer each other's questions, as if it were an academic attempt to discover the truth - that works, is very quick, but hardly ever happens, within the NHS (I got that from a GP, but not from PCTs, etc).

    5 Kay writes:

    You will only do this if you can accurately identify the issues the complainant is raising, so clarify the situation

    which is blindingly obvious, and spelt out on the 'Listening, Responding, Improving' guidance material - but hardly anybody, does that !

    You (ie NHS bodies) have an unhelpful tendency, to wish to both define and respond to complaints: the complainant defines the complaint, you are supposed to respond to it (and NOT, to some variation fo the compalint, which you are happier with !).

    6 I could drone on about this, almost forever - I suspect, Kay could, as well !

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