Dealing with patient complaints

As a public health physician and health lawyer with New Zealand firm, Buddle Findlay, Dr Marie Bismark is no stranger to the many and varied patient complaints made to doctors. She talks to 6minutes about her latest research which focuses on serial offenders – those doctors that receive the bulk of complaints.

How common are patient complaints?

Most complaints are clustered among a relatively small group of doctors. Our study found only 3% of doctors were responsible for almost half of all formal complaints.

That’s reassuring ... can you be more specific?

In this ‘high risk’ group complaints were about a range of issues but most commonly they centred around communication and consent issues, along with clinical care decisions. What we did see is that for individual doctors there is often a pattern of behaviour that causes complaints so it is important to look at that rather than just assess individual complaints on their own.

Are health service commissions doing this?

It’s starting to happen but many of the commission’s staff have come from legal backgrounds where they’re still focused on case by case resolution.

Are complaints always based around competence issues?

No, sometimes their competence is fine but there may be systems failures that are contributing the problem so that has to be taken into consideration.

What’s the complaints process like?