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ss triple helix - winter 2013,  So you've received a complaint

So you've received a complaint

Liz Mash offers practical and spiritual advice

You arrive at work one morning to discover that you are the subject of a complaint. How do you feel? Angry, guilty, ashamed, worried? It is certainly not a pleasant experience. Your ability or conduct is being called into question. I can empathise. I have been there, more than once. Let me share what I have learnt through the experience.

We live in an increasingly litigious society where the level of complaints within the NHS is rising. (1) Patients are actively encouraged to voice difficulties they have faced. Details of how to make a complaint are easily accessible. (2) Therefore it is probable that each of us will face complaints during our careers.

Complaints may be dealt with within a department or practice. Or they can escalate to higher authority: the hospital or PCT, ombudsman or GMC. The professional in question may be at fault or only perceived to be at fault. There is no one pattern to complaints that arise and they may have variable impacts on our lives and careers. Careers can be ended. In extreme circumstances people have taken their own lives.

Responding in a Christ-like way

If we are working to God's glory, (3) how do we react when someone complains about us and our work? How do we respond to complaints in a Christ-like way? Paul tells the Philippians:
'Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice ...Do not be anxious in anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.' (4)

For many of us the last thing we may feel is thankful, or rejoicing. Yet Paul tells us we need to rejoice in the Lord no matter what. Not being anxious includes how we act when facing difficult professional issues.

Don't let the negative thoughts take over your life. If you are struggling with a complaint which may appear career-threatening, remember that your identity is found first and foremost in Christ. Meditate on that which is honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report. (5) With our focus on Christ, we develop the perspective that even the most serious of complaints can be faced and managed without ruining our lives.

You are not alone. Seek support through trusted friends. Ask for prayer, don't go through things on your own or bottle them up (obviously do this without breaching confidentiality). CMF groups and open houses (6) can provide a safe environment where these sorts of problems may be discussed without fear of judgment.

Respond, don't react. Don't get angry: avoid 'why me?' questions. Don't blame others, get into useless arguments or be vengeful. Having a good attitude is an important part of maintaining a good witness.

Motives. We may not be aware of the motivation of the complainant. Often complaints can be borne out of very difficult emotions – grief, guilt, fear. People who have no hope can feel despair at a time of grief or great distress and therefore can be looking for someone to blame. We who have hope in Christ should have compassion on the complainant and be gentle towards them, 'for a gentle answer turns away wrath.' (7)

Should I apologise? In his book, At Any Given Moment, Graham McAll talks about the need to listen to the complaint, to acknowledge that the care given to the patient may have been deficient, then to give a genuine apology. (8)

    More practical suggestions:
  • Know the locally relevant protocols for responding to a complaint.
  • Approach your medical indemnity group. They will give very practical advice.
  • Seek help and advice from trusted seniors.
  • Reflect on what happened and learn from the experience – significant event analysis or morbidity and mortality meeting may provide opportunity for this to be done within the team as a whole.
  • Ensure all your documentation is honest and clear.
  • Communicate clearly, avoiding jargon and ambiguity.

Liz Mash is a GP in Kent.

  1. NHS complaints rise at record rate. The Telegraph, 25 August 2010
  2. NHS choices. How to complain.
  3. Colossians 3:23
  4. Philippians 4:4-7
  5. Philippians 4:8
  6. Junior doctors' open house contacts
  7. Proverbs 15:1
  8. McAll G. At a given moment: faith matters in healthcare. London: Christian Medical Fellowship, 2011:158
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