Patient complaints are inevitable when you work with patients. On one hand, they may be an opportunity to improve your practice and right a wrong, but they may also result in legal action. What should your medical practice do when faced with a patient complaint? What is the right course of action in these cases?

Take Action

If you receive a formal complaint from a patient, respond to the patient in a timely manner, not only to assure them that you are taking the complaint seriously but because it is your responsibility as a practitioner. You should respond to the complaint within three days of receiving it.

If someone happens to make a complaint over the phone and demands an immediate response, the best first step is to simply listen to the complaint and start taking notes. Try not to get angry or defensive with the patient. Getting angry with them could cause them to escalate the case into a formal claim or take it to court.

Confirm that you understand their concerns without admitting any wrong doing. Instead, tell them that you will investigate the matter and then respond urgently. This gives you the facts regarding the case and space in which you can seek guidance. You can work with an advisor later to write an appropriate response to the complaint.

Once you’ve addressed the customer’s complaint, inform your line supervisor or whoever is responsible for handling patient concerns.

Inform Your Indemnity Insurer

The next step is to inform your medical indemnity insurance provider of the complaint. Indemnity insurance companies like Incision Indemnity should be informed of the complaint even if you think it is trivial or without merit. Insurers will usually have a legal helpline to collect necessary information and provide guidance on how to respond to the patient.

Depending on the size of your organisation, you should inform the line manager or whoever handles customer complaints as well.

Keep the Lines of Communication Only

Don’t refuse to speak with the claimant after the claim has been made. If you can, maintain a civil relationship since this makes an amicable resolution more likely. However, you should not make an apology until you’ve received a properly worded one reviewed by a legal expert and been authorisedby your insurer.

Consider talking to a trusted colleague if you’re experiencing negative emotions. This could help you remain positive when dealing with the claimant.

Be Open to Modest Settlements

Be open to paying a small settlement to the patient or refunding their fees, though this should be done with your insurer’s agreement. Paying a modest amount could save you time and money later. Note that a settlement doesn’t necessarily require admitting you did anything wrong. Conversely, paying the sum gives you the opportunity to get the claimant to sign a confidentiality and non-publicity clause that protects your reputation.

Consider What You Can Learn from the Experience

Look at customer complaints as an opportunity to learn. Consider how you could use the summary of the event as evidence for a quality improvement initiative. If the organisationuses this to improve how they do things, then that could be communicated to the patient to show that their complaint was taken seriously. Often, this is all that matters to the patient and being reassured that the same mistakes won’t happen again is enough to satisfy them.


Medical practices have a clear path to follow when faced with patient complaints. The solution is to deal with it in a proper and timely manner in accordance with best practices, and not ignore it or react out of panic.

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