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It's 'okay' to apologise to patients with valid complaints, says RCN


Apologising to a patient making a complaint is not an acceptance of guilt and can help defuse the situation, according to latest guidance on feedback handling from the Royal College of Nursing.  

The new guidance has been published by the RCN to help frontline nurses and support workers “understand how to deal with feedback, both good and bad, as well as concerns, complaints and compliments”.

The college said it was intended to help frontline nursing staff know what was expected of them when they received feedback from patients, and also what support they should expect from their employers.  

“It is important that all staff are given the right information and training to handle them appropriately”

Peter Carter

The guidance, designed for easy access and use as part of staff inductions, highlighted that the way a nurse or healthcare assistant responded to someone will “set the tone” for the rest of the conversation.

It encouraged staff to be “open, honest, and friendly”, as this was “much more likely to result in a positive experience for everyone, irrespective of whether you are actually able to resolve anything”.

The guide also stated that it was “perfectly okay to apologise” to someone if they had a valid complaint, adding that “offering an apology does not constitute an acceptance of responsibility”.

“In many cases an apology will help you to manage the immediate problem of someone wanting to share their bad experience with someone who cares, so that hopefully you can ensure that it doesn’t reoccur,” it said.

In addition, it noted that if the problem could not be resolved quickly or required escalation, the complainant must be given all the information they need to make a formal complaint, including the clinician’s name and contact details. However, it also advised the clinician to “make a record for yourself of what happened and what you said or did, so that you can refer back to it”.

Some “simple steps” are also suggested for dealing with complainants who may be “distressed, angry, or exhibiting the effects of alcohol or drugs”, such as trying to keep your voice calm and level, and finding a quiet place with seating to discuss the problem.

The document stated: “This guide is not meant to be exhaustive and we appreciate that each workplace will be different. However, we hope you’ll find it provides simple and straightforward advice that will help you in your day-to-day work.”

The 16-page pamphlet – titled Good practice for handling feedback – has been developed following discussion with RCN members about their own experiences.

The college said the pamphlet was part of its “commitment” to help improve the way the NHS handled feedback and complaints, which it made in response to the Clwyd-Hart review into the NHS complaints system.

Ann Clwyd

Ann Clwyd

The review, co-chaired by Ann Clwyd, MP for the Cynon Valley, and Professor Tricia Hart, chief executive of South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, was commissioned after the Francis report highlighted that complaints were a warning sign of wider problems in a hospital.

The review’s report, published in October 2013, made a raft of recommendations and called for a “revolution” in the way the NHS handled complaints.

The RCN said consultation with its members had revealed that many felt there was a lack of information in their workplace from their employers on what the process is for dealing with complaints, and what is expected of them.

Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: “Our members say that there is often a lack of information about how they are supposed to deal with complaints.


Peter Carter

“These complaints will often be sensitive, and made during a vulnerable time for patients and their families, so it is important that all staff are given the right information and training to handle them appropriately,” he said.

He added: “Employers must also demonstrate to their staff and patients that when feedback is received, it is acted on and used to improve patient care in future, not simply filed away.”


What do you think of this guidance?

Let us know using the comments section below or join the discussion on Twitter by following #NTtwitchat from 1pm Wednesday 19 November.


Readers' comments (12)

  • Just a note of caution...when the Rcn offered indemnity insurance it would not have allowed such statements to be made. Thos with proper trade unions who still have cover may wish to see whether this will nullify their insurance...

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  • Trusts too may not wish to be left open to litigation by staff who will then seek to claim vicarious liability.

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