A Medical Protection survey shows that a startling 90 per cent of GPs feel that patients are more likely to complain now, compared to 10 years ago. Yet advancements in medical science and clinical knowledge have seen patient's live longer, healthier lives. So why then are more complaints being made about GPs than ever before?
There is no straightforward answer but it is likely to be largely down to changing patient expectations. That is not to say that we have turned into a rabble of demanding and ungrateful patients, but that there has been a shift in culture generally which dictates we should question authority, promote autonomy, and deserve respect.
Indeed changing expectations are experienced across all sectors, with service industries now starting to embrace consumer feedback good or bad. GP practices are no exception, which is positive as complaints can be used as a valuable learning tool. Some doctors do however view complaints as a personal slight and may not truly reflect on the reasons why a patient has complained, especially when there has been a positive medical outcome. By understanding the root causes of why patients may complain, it is possible to prevent future complaints.
We also commissioned a survey of over 2,000 people in Britain. A third of respondents agreed that they were more likely to complain than 10 years ago, and 21 per cent agree their expectations are higher now, than a decade ago. When asked what triggered a past complaint, three of the top five reasons cited were down to communication and behaviour - this includes issues such as manner, attitude, communication breakdowns, and also not managing expectations effectively.
This could relate to a patient's expectation that a GP can deal with all their ailments in a 10 minute appointment, or because they have entered the consultation with a fixed idea of how they wish to be treated. For example they may believe antibiotics are required, when in fact this may not be clinically appropriate, or they may have tried to diagnose themselves using the internet. It is important therefore, that the doctor establishes a patient's expectations as early on as possible to prevent a misunderstanding on what is and isn't possible.
Understandably some doctors may find it frustrating to be contending with 'Dr Google', however taking the time to explain why a certain option or treatment may not be helpful may assist the patient in not feeling that their concerns were dismissed.
I often see complaints which relate to a patient feeling like they were not listened to properly or their underlying anxieties not addressed. For example, a patient may have a non-threatening condition but present with a high level of anxiety, perhaps due to a fear they have cancer, as a relative died of cancer. By taking the time to communicate and pick up on non-verbal cues, a GP may alleviate stress and prevent a dissatisfied and anxious patient making a complaint.
The power of good communication is clear in the survey- it can assist in resolving and even preventing complaints, and managing patient expectations. With a huge 82 per cent of the public saying they would be unlikely to complain if their GP communicated openly and with empathy, it feels like something we should all try and embrace.