GP apology could prevent three quarters of complaints by patients

GPs could avoid as many as three quarters of official complaints from patients by offering an apology, a survey of the public has suggested.

Three in four (76%) people said they would be unlikely to make a complaint if their GP apologised after an adverse incident, according to a YouGov poll of 2,000 patients commissioned by medico-legal organisation Medical Protection.

A concurrent survey of more than 120 GPs found that 86% believe that saying sorry can stop a complaint from escalating, with 82% saying an apology can help restore a good doctor/patient relationship.

Medical Protection added that an appropriate apology does not amount to an admission of liability, and GPs should not fear this could put them at greater risk or make a complaint more difficult to challenge.

A previous poll conducted by Medical Protection suggested that two thirds (67%) of GPs are fearful of being sued by patients.

GP complaints

Dr Helen Hartley, medicolegal adviser at Medical Protection, said: ‘It is encouraging to see that doctors appreciate the benefits of apologising, and understand how saying sorry can reassure a patient when something has gone wrong. The public also clearly value an apology with 75% saying they were not likely to make a complaint about their doctor if they received one.

‘We know that apologising to patients and their relatives following an adverse outcome can be difficult in practice. These are highly emotive conversations and the medicolegal environment is extremely challenging – doctors are in fear of being sued or being referred to the GMC and these fears can impact on the way they practise and communicate.

‘But apologies can help prevent formal complaints occurring or escalating. Saying sorry is not an admission of liability; rather, it is an acknowledgment that something has gone wrong and a way of expressing empathy.

‘The culture in healthcare should be one of openness and honesty so professionals feel they can apologise with confidence, learn from any mistakes that have contributed to an adverse patient outcome, and make improvements to minimise the risk of the same thing happening again. We will continue work with our members to provide advice and support, education and practical tools which help with communication and difficult conversations.’

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