The recent report from the Health Select Committee showed once again the need for an open, transparent and simple complaints process that puts patients first. Complaints give the health service a chance to reflect and improve the treatment that it provides, but we must never forget that speaking up about poor medical care can be traumatic for patients.

Complaints about doctors have been on the rise for some time. Our most recent data shows that although this increase has slowed, the number of complaints in 2013 was still 64 per cent higher than 2010, and the number of investigations has increased almost 50 per cent.

Faster, more personalised support

For this reason, it’s more important than ever that we better understand the concerns raised with us. Most of the complaints we receive from the public are closed for not meeting our threshold for an investigation. This does not mean that those complaints are invalid, just that the issues should be resolved at a local level.

For the complaints that we do need to investigate, because the issues are so serious that a doctor’s fitness to practise might be called into question, we want to resolve them faster, provide more personalised support and help patients to understand the decisions we make.

In 2012, as part of a pilot to improve our procedures and make them clearer and less stressful, we began to meet with patients who had a complaint investigated.

Patient Liaison Service
Our new Patient Liaison Service has held over 400 meetings with patients.

Patient Liaison Service

So far our new Patient Liaison Service has held over 400 meetings with patients either face to face or over the telephone at the start and end of an investigation. The response has been positive, and an independent evaluation [PDF] found that it delivered real benefits to the patients who used it, as one said:

It felt more personal. When I first made the complaint it was by e-mail and was all just factual, talking to someone allowed me to explain how this has affected me personally. The GMC also explained to me where else I can go in regard to this complaint.

From this month we are rolling out these meetings to patients in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and we will continue to offer them in our pilot regions in England. Over the next 12 months we will be making them available to patients across the whole of the UK.

Supported and Informed

Making a complaint about a doctor can be difficult, frustrating and in some cases traumatic. The GMC can often be the last stop in what has been a long and drawn out process. Offering patients the chance to sit down with someone face to face and listen to what has happened means we’re better able to understand their concerns and ensure that patients understand our procedures.

Previous research has shown that although patients and public know who we are, there is not the same understanding about what we do. Our Patient Liaison Service should help us to address that problem and make sure patients feel more supported, informed and understood throughout the investigation process.

We know that there is still more to do to make our complaints process quicker, simpler and more transparent for patients, but we are determined to get it right.

We have published Patients’ Help, an interactive guide with information about the complaints process, case studies and contacts for support organisations across the UK. We have also launched a guide for patients with information about where to go for advice, and an online complaints form for patients and the public to make raising concerns quicker and simpler.

The evidence so far suggests that our pilot meetings have made a real difference to patients. We hope that, as this scheme rolls out across the UK, we can continue to improve our work and support more patients through what we know is a difficult time.

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Anthony Omo is Director of Fitness to Practise at the GMC