When you decide to become a doctor you’re usually wanting to help others, and maybe even save lives. Caring for others is something that you enjoy doing, and that’s why you were drawn to this career. Something you don’t foresee are complaints from the said people that you’re trying to help.

How frequent are complaints?

In Australia, one in 25 doctors receive a formal complaint every year. Complaints are an unfortunate reality of life as a doctor. Hence the need for medical indemnity insurance, and the many companies vying for medical students to sign up with countless marketing gimmicks.

The formal complaints do not often result in disciplinary action, with less than one in 10 progressing further.

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Complaint process

Most complaints are resolved within the hospital itself, requiring a verbal or written response. However, sometimes the complaint can be escalated to health complaint entities. If the Medical Board determines that your conduct is unprofessional or there is a concern for competence, this may lead to disciplinary action.

This can range from a caution to having your name removed from the medical register.

Coping with complaints

Negative patient outcomes and complaints are not what any doctor wants to experience. We went into this profession to help people and heal. Yet sometimes mistakes or oversights happen. Or certain miscommunications can lead to a person feeling unsatisfied with their medical treatment.

Normal emotional reactions to these scenarios include:

  • Anxiety
  • Self-doubt
  • Shame
  • Denial
  • Depression
  • Despair
  • Anger
  • Shock
  • Indignation

The process:

  1. Initial impact – it’s shocking when these situations happen. You can go through a whole range of negative emotions
  2. Conflict – you can feel angry, depressed or have doubts about your clinical competence. Your relationships can also be affected
  3. Resolution
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How to cope

It’s not a matter of if a negative event will happen, but rather when. So how do you deal with this when it happens? I never thought of this scenario before or during med school. As I was a diligent student I didn’t think about failing at medicine, or making mistakes.

First, gain understanding of the process and next steps. Speak to your medico-legal adviser, make sense of the nature of the complaint and then figure out your method of coping.

What’s worked best for me is talking, writing and reading about it. It’s not just you, every doctor has had an experience like this. Don’t shoulder the burden alone, speak to your loved ones, colleagues, supervisor or seek professional help.

It’s okay to struggle, be honest with yourself and how you feel. Know other support services that are available in your area. There are 24/7 hotlines you can call if you need extra help. Look up the number for your local helpline.