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Complaints handling process to resume 9th August

The primary care complaints handling amnesty, which was set up during the worst months of the Covid-19 pandemic, is coming to an end on August 9th. GP practices will resume capturing data from the 2020/21 period, with practices asked to submit their returns by 30th October.

In order to free GPs and practice staff from non-essential bureaucracy, the gathering of the so-called KO41b data (collected annually from GP and dental practices) was suspended for 2019/20. However, practices still responded to complaints where necessary and captured learnings whenever possible.

It comes amid concerns that the recent rise in remote, online consultations has substantially increased the risk of complaints from patients. This is mainly due to the heightened risks of misunderstandings and dissatisfaction. In some cases, diagnosis has been harder remotely than it would have been in person, and for intimate examinations there has been an understandable reluctance to send digital content.

Delays in the system due to reduced capacity, refusals to attend and unreasonable demands for home visits have all been contributing factors to what some believe could be a flood of complaints which will need to be processed. However, NHS Digital consulted on the process; to try to alleviate the burden on staff, the usual collection window has been increased from 6 weeks to 12.

An exceptionally unpredictable environment has been created by the pandemic, which has led to the GMC stating in guidance last year that it will take into account these unusual situations whenever it has cause to investigate allegations about doctors and their fitness to practice (FtP). The ‘sustained and extreme periods of fatigue, and in some cases significant distress and emotional trauma’ that many staff have experienced in recent months will also be considered. The GMC guidance said specifically that it would be unlikely for an FtP case to be pursued if the allegation related to a remote consultation.

PPE has been an ongoing issue which has given rise to a number of complaints regarding GPs’ adherence to PPE requirements. The GMC states that if a shortage of PPE (or the rationing of it) caused the doctor not to wear it then an FtP complaint would be unlikely to be launched. However, a GP’s refusal to wear PPE when it was available, without reasonable justification, would likely mean an FtP investigation would be launched.

The new guidance has been welcomed by the Medical Defence Union (MDU), but the organisation also warned that the same principles should be applied to criminal proceedings launched against doctors. In June this year, the MDU reported that it had recorded its busiest period ever, with a 23% rise in the number of GPs needing support for complaints made against them. These complaints were not limited to remote consultations, but also included face-to-face appointments.

In summary, here are three ways to ensure you are ready for any complaints that need to be actioned:

  1. Ensure the practice complaints policy is up to date and patients and staff are aware of it.
  2. Identify trends in complaints to see if the issues raised are isolated or systemic in nature.
  3. Ensure all staff are appropriately trained in resolving any issues at the most informal level.

Our Thornfields training course 'Promoting Quality and Handling Complaints' provides help and advice on using complaints positively, the national complaints handling guidance, and action planning to improve quality.


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