Responding to a complaint in the Republic of Ireland

Complaints are inevitable in medicine, and few doctors will get through their career without being involved in at least one, so it's vital to know how to respond.

  • Most complaints are made directly to healthcare providers and require doctors to respond directly to the complainant.
  • The Medical Council deals with the most serious complaints, such as those that might raise concerns about a doctor's fitness to practise.
  • You can read more about how the Medical Council investigates complaints here.

It can be dispiriting to hear that any aspect of your work has been criticised. However, approached as an opportunity to learn and improve, complaints can be a powerful learning tool.

Learning about something that hasn't gone well for a patient, even if it hasn't actually resulted in any significant harm, might allow a doctor to change their practice or the systems they work in and avoid further complaints or even avert harm to their patients.

When you receive a complaint it is often helpful to think back to a time when you have yourself had cause to complain. Approaching complaints with this mindset allows us to control our natural personal response to the complaint and ask ourselves, "Is this the experience I would have wanted my patient to have?"

Once you have reached this point you will want to provide patients with the best complaint response you possibly can, because this is what they expect, and this is what they deserve.

Why do patients complain?

Doctors may worry that patients complain as a pre-empt to further action, such as a clinical negligence claim. But what patients tell us is that in a large proportion of cases, they actually complain in order to receive answers about their care. This is supported by the fact that the majority of complaints about doctors relate at least partly to communication issues.

Patients are also strongly motivated by a desire to prevent another patient having the same experience in the future. Understanding what drives a patient to complain means we can tailor our complaint responses to address these motivations, even if they are not explicitly mentioned in the complaint.

A comprehensive account of our involvement in the patient's care, including an explanation of what we did and why, will help address the first point about patients getting answers; and including our reflections on our involvement, and in particular what we have learned and how our practice will change, will help address the second point about future care, for themselves and others. As we will see below, these are two vital elements of a good complaint response.

Recognising complaints and responding to verbal complaints

Recognising a complaint can be more difficult than we might think. The Health Act 2004 defines a complaint as:

"a complaint made under this Part about any action of the Executive or a service provider that -

(a) it is claimed, does not accord with fair or sound administrative practice, and

(b) adversely affects the person by whom or on whose behalf the complaint is made."

Any patient can say they are not happy with the service they receive, but at what point should low level concerns trigger an organisation's complaints procedure? The simplest way to decide is to ask the patient. If front line staff are trained to respond to all expressions of unhappiness with an apology and the questions, "How has this affected you?" and, "What can I do to put this right?", many verbal complaints may be dealt with quickly and informally.

The HSE's complaints handling policy calls this approach 'point of contact resolution' and requires it to be completed within two working days. Clearly the more complaints that we can settle at this earliest stage, the less time we will then need to spend on responding instead to formal written complaints.

See our separate guide for more on info on responding to written complaints.

This page was correct at publication on 15/03/2021. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.