Handling complaints for the first time as a consultant

Read our guide to the non-clinical aspects of becoming a consultant here.

Every consultant will have experienced the heart-sinking feeling of a complaint arriving into their already busy inbox. With the NHS in England alone dealing with more than 4,000 written complaints a week, dealing with complaints is an inevitable of every senior doctor’s job.1

The first time a complaint email or letter arrives as a new consultant is a different and more lonely experience compared to when dealing with such problems as a junior, senior doctors warn.

Patients are advised by the NHS that they can give feedback on any negative experience, and if that does not resolve the issue they can make a complaint to the service provider or the commissioner. In hospitals, these often come through the Patients Advice and Liaison Service (PALS).

The complaint email often unleashes a turmoil of difficult emotions, not least denial and anger. Helen Fidler, a London consultant gastroenterologist, says receiving a complaint is always distressing for a consultant.
‘The worst time to receive a complaint is a Friday, as that means your weekend is ruined as I find it is all I can think about,’ Dr Fidler says. ‘As a junior there is a support network with a consultant who should help, support and mentor you through the process and deal with the brunt of it. As a consultant, at least you tend to have the experience of having gone
through it before and dealt with the shock, denial and anger that comes with the process.’

This is one of the aspects of being a consultant that those new to the post may not feel well prepared for. Juniors can be shielded from the process to a certain extent by their consultants, who take the lead and responsibility when dealing with complaints about their team.

So how should new consultants tackle a new complaint? Read top tips and practical advice about how the process works, how to respond to complaints, how to survive the anxiety, how to learn from the experience and where to seek more support.

Read more on this subject by accessing our free guide today.

[1] NHS Digital (2018). Data on written complaints in the NHS - 2017-18 [PAS]. https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/data-on-written-complaints-in-the-nhs/2017-18

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