Communication skills: Informal resolution of a complaint.

A clear understanding of the NHS complaints procedure is vital for the MRCP PACES.

The first line of defence against any potential complaint is always, always to attempt informal resolution as soon as possible.  This process of attempting informal resolution is one of the commonest scenarios encountered in the MRCP PACES, and vital in your working career.  Sensible doctors recognise that a few minutes invested in formal complaint prevention through informal resolution saves vast amounts of time, effort and hassle later – not to mention having the potential to leave complainants feeling better treated and more satisfied.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of doing this well.  For this reason, attempting informal resolution of a complaint is one of the most common MRCP PACES scenarios.

The key steps involve:

  1. Establishing the facts, as the complainant sees them;
  2. Listening and demonstrating empathy;
  3. Expressing regret (if the complaint is not reasonable or down to a misunderstanding rather than a complaint) that the complainant feels dissatisfied, or apologising if the complaint is legitimate – in most cases an apology is the best course of action;
  4. Enquiring about any other concerns;
  5. Setting out a proposed course of action to avoid similar problems if you can identify one;
  6. Signposting the complainant to the PALS office if they wish to make a formal complaint.

Things to avoid include getting cross yourself, interrupting, failing to apologise when this is appropriate, and not listening to the complainant.

The full process for handling complaints is set out in the NHS Constitution. This describes expected response times, the PALS process in detail and how patients can pursue matters with the ombudsman if still dissatisfied.