Patient/family complaints

Listening and attending isn’t important just when patient/clients are telling you something about their health, or when they’re complimenting you for doing a good job. It’s also very important that we listen and attend well when patients/clients or their families are unhappy about something or want to complain.

It’s never easy nor pleasant to be on the receiving end of a complaint, particularity if the person doing the complaining is upset, angry or even abusive. There are three important things we have to recognise in this situation:

  • in all likelihood, the complaint is not about you: you just happen to be the person who is hearing it – do not take it personally
  • if the person is upset or angry, you becoming upset or angry will not help the situation – it could, in fact, make it worse; keep clam and composed
  • while it might not seem pleasant at the time, we can learn a great deal from complaints, giving us an opportunity not only to put whatever is wrong right for the patient/client or family member, but also to make sure that if possible, it doesn’t happen again; complaints also help you to develop your own understanding and knowledge of what is important for patients/clients and families.

Some work carried out in Scotland for senior charge nurses offered a simple mnemonic – CALM [PDF file 780KB] [How to access PDF files]– to guide how to respond when receiving a complaint. This can work equally well for you.

  • Compose yourself: relax and remember about good body posture – keep good eye contact with the person, don’t cross your arms in front of you or raise your eyes to the ceiling. Show by your posture that you’re interested and ready to listen.
  • Attend: give the person your undivided attention. Don’t be distracted by thoughts of the 20 other things you should be doing right now – this is important, so be there.
  • Listen: really listen to what the person is saying. Many patients/clients who are unhappy about the way their complaint has been handled tell us that no one really listened to them. Try to identify the key words – angry, disappointed, disgusted, hurt – these emotional responses need to be addressed just as much as the initial situation that caused them. And please, don’t interrupt or talk over the person – hold your response until the person has finished what he or she wants to say.
  • Moving on: respond positively to what the person has told you and lay the foundations for moving on towards a solution. First and foremost, say you’re sorry. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re apologising for a failure of service  – simply that you’re sorry that whatever has happened has made the person so upset. If you can deal with the situation easily and quickly, by all means do so. If the situation is more complicated, explain to the person that you will let your manager/supervisor know as soon as possible  so that he or she can take time to agree a way forward with the person to identify exactly what went wrong, whether there is any explanation for its occurrence, and what can be done to remedy it.

As we said earlier, it’s probably not you personally who is being criticised, but occasionally, a person might raise a complaint that is down to a mistake you  have made. No one is infallible, and everyone makes mistakes. What’s important is how you respond to them.

Instead of feeling that you’ve somehow failed in this situation, try to see it as an opportunity to learn and to improve your practice. Think through what happened, initially by yourself but also with your manager/supervisor.  Ask yourself:

  • what happened, and why?
  • what factors were involved?
  • what elements influenced your decision-making, and how?
  • who else was involved, and what part did they play?
  • how would you react if a similar situation arose in the future?

Going through this with your manager/supervisor will give you a deeper understanding of the situation and a clear plan on how to deal with similar situations in future.

Your organisation will have guidance and protocols on how to report and record comments and complaints received – you should familiarise yourself with these, discussing any emerging training issues with your manager or supervisor. The RCN has produced some guidance [PDF file 518KB] on how to deal with handling and learning from comments, concerns and complaints.

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