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Apologise early to resolve complaints

NHS England and RCOG report on how to improve patient safety

Louise Prime

Thursday, 09 October 2014

Apologising early for making a mistake can make all the difference between being struck off the medical register and continuing to practice, the Medical Defence Union has reminded doctors. The defence organisation also said that although it was concerned by the large rise in complaints made to the General Medical Council over the past three years, this reflected a rise in complaints globally.

The MDU welcomed the finding in the GMC’s State of Medical Education and Practice 2014 report that doctors who had shown insight into their actions that led to a patient complaining, including taking appropriate remedial action and making an apology if necessary, were ten times less likely to be erased from the register than doctors who didn’t. It also reminded doctors of the value of proper legal representation, as this helped them to demonstrate their insight after the event.

The MDU’s deputy head of advisory services Dr Catherine Wills said an early apology could help resolve a complaint more quickly or even prevent it altogether, and added that a recent survey of its members found that more than 90% had apologised to the patient or their family. She said: “The importance of reviewing an adverse incident and ensuring the necessary changes are made to the doctor’s practice are obviously integral to good practice. But the GMC’s findings show that a doctor who demonstrates insight by taking appropriate remedial action and apologising where necessary will often fare better at a fitness to practise hearing.”

She added: “The GMC also found that doctors had a greater chance of demonstrating their post-event insight if they had legal representation than if they chose to represent themselves … experienced solicitors can help the doctor prepare their case and present evidence of remediation.”

Gill Bellord, director of employment relations and reward at the NHS Employers organisation, also welcomed the insight of the GMC’s report into the source, nature and outcome of complaints about doctors. She commented: “We are pleased to see that, over a four-year period, 90% of complaints brought by trusts have been investigated.”

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists called yesterday for patient safety to be ingrained in all doctors’ continuing professional development throughout their careers, “placing the patient at the centre of their care”. In its latest report Becoming tomorrow’s specialist, it said there should be “a major review of the CPD programme to make sure it is aligned with appraisal and revalidation, with a greater emphasis on patient safety within the process”.

Yesterday also saw the publication by NHS England of its Never Events Policy Framework Review consultation, which it said will focus on managing and learning from ‘never events’ – and also consider how financial penalties for never events might be included in the NHS Standard Contract for 2015/16. But NHS England insisted that its overall priority remains improving patient safety through a culture that fosters learning and improvement, rather than blame and penalty.

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