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In today’s digital world, patients have more avenues for voicing their complaints than ever before. Social media makes it incredibly easy for stories to go viral practically overnight. At their worst, patient complaints can escalate into malpractice claims and widespread media coverage which is hard to recover from. Seeing how damaging, time consuming and expensive complaints and lawsuits can be, it’s crucial to address the root causes before things escalate.

When the system fails us

Oftentimes, patient complaints are not the result of a single healthcare professional simply making a mistake. Typically, they are a by-product of a system that makes it increasingly difficult for healthcare professionals to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

The failures at Mackay Base hospital received wide media coverage and resulted in a class-action lawsuit after several patients suffered physical and mental harm at the hospital’s obstetrics and gynecology unit. The case is a prime example of a dysfunctional system where members of the staff repeatedly voiced their concerns only to be ignored by senior staff. This led to the life-altering mistreatment of dozens of women.

At Mackay Base, serious issues were not addressed until wide media coverage and numerous complaints made them impossible to ignore. This scenario is all too common. Fixing this reactive approach will not only reduce the number of complaints but significantly improve the patient experience and boost employee morale.

Complaints are often preventable

As the Mackay Base case demonstrates, patient complaints don’t usually come out of nowhere. Oftentimes, there is an opportunity to identify and address issues and concerns before they escalate into complaints, lawsuits, and personal tragedies. In order to provide the best level of care, identifying patterns and red flags is crucial.

In Sydney, a prominent plastic surgeon was found guilty of misconduct after two of his patients died. The same doctor was also found guilty of unsatisfactory conduct due to having a relationship with one of his patients. That one practitioner should attract multiple complaints is not an isolated incident.

Widescale studies have shown that a small number of doctors actually account for the majority of patient complaints. Studies also suggest that it’s possible to identify the providers that are at a higher risk of attracting complaints in the future. Using the available tools to identify high-risk providers and then addressing the issues proactively could prevent negative care outcomes and drastically enhance the patient experience.

When communication breaks down

According to the Health Complaints Commission, a large number of medical complaints are caused by issues in communication. Typically, these complaints are caused by a healthcare provider’s attitude or manner, or the quality and amount of information provided to the patient. This can result in a disgruntled patient fuming off on social media… or a life-threatening misunderstanding. The latter was true when a Melbourne-residing cancer patient travelled all the way to Adelaide simply to receive an MRI scan – all due to “miscommunication from the hospital.” This was how Victoria’s health minister Mary-Anne Thomas described the error. That the case was so highly publicised that it warranted a statement from a top official is a prime example of the widespread impact an adverse patient experience can have.

On the surface, communication errors might seem easy to fix: simply take the time to explain things to your patient. In practice, this is easier said than done in the current conditions. With doctors and nurses constantly having to race against the clock, there is little time or resources for fine-tuning communication – even though it would more than pay off in the long run. That’s why it’s so critical to build a solid foundation with a system that supports doctors and nurses in doing their best work, including clear and informative communication.

Why a proactive approach pays off

Patient complaints, malpractice suits, and negative media coverage all take heavy a toll on healthcare providers. The complaints process is often long, expensive and demoralising for everyone involved. All healthcare providers know that preventive care is always the better option. The same is true for our healthcare systems. Rather than scrambling for damage control after the fact, we need to be proactive and make systemic changes before tragedies occur in the first place.

Far too many organisations are overburdening their staff simply because they believe they can’t afford to do otherwise. While working with minimal staff and resources might seem cost-effective in the short run, it is actually drastically more expensive. Understaffing has repeatedly been linked to adverse health outcomes and an increased risk of liability due to malpractice. Simply put, a complaint – or worse, a lawsuit – will be significantly more expensive than maintaining proper staffing levels ever will.