Complaints process takes huge mental toll on doctors

2 minute read

Nearly half of doctors feel powerless in the face of medical complaints, survey results show

Nearly half of doctors feel powerless in the face of medical complaints, a UK study suggests, while almost a third think vexatious complainants should face stronger penalties.

In a survey published online by the British Medical Journal, respondents told stories of suicidal ideation, practicing defensive medicine, vindictive patients and ruined lives.

Nearly half of the doctors currently, or previously, facing a complaint felt negatively towards the complainant, and nearly a third felt the complaint was unfair.

“I cry, can’t sleep and contemplate suicide and certainly not being a doctor anymore,” said one.

The findings echo those of Australian indemnifier Avant, which has been lobbying for more transparent and quicker complaints resolution on behalf of its doctor members.

In a 2015 position paper, Avant quoted a member who opted to leave the profession: “There is no [other] job that puts practitioners under such stress and nobody gives a damn.”

Georgie Haysom, who leads the insurer’s doctor advocacy program, told The Medical Republic she had seen similar in the way Avant members experienced complaints, particularly the sense of powerlessness.

“Doctors find the process itself stressful, that there is no redress for them especially where the complaint has no merit, or their treatment is vindicated,” Ms Haysom said.

While there had been some improvements in Australia in the timeliness with which less-complex complaints were handled, talks with the medical regulator were ongoing, she said.

In the British survey, just a quarter of doctors felt positively about any aspect of their experience, had a clear understanding of the procedure, or felt a sense their colleagues or medical defence union had their back.

The results were “frankly alarming”, the report’s corresponding author, Professor Tom Bourne, said. In a blog post, he expressed surprise at the extent of doctors’ “unhappiness and despair at what they see as a vindictive and unfair process”.

The researchers analysed the qualitative responses to the survey of around 11,000 British Medical Association members, after last year publishing the quantitative component which found doctors subject to a complaint were at significant risk of moderate to severe depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.

Four in five respondents said they practiced defensive medicine, and avoided certain procedures and patients they considered to be “high-risk”.

“The problem here seems to be that doctors lack confidence in the complaints process, which they think unfairly stigmatises them and assumes guilt,” Professor Bourne said.

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