What to do when patients complain

Published on: 

What physicians should do to limit the likelihood that they'll be sued when patients complain about their care.

Key Points

Patient complaints and recriminations can be unpleasant, time-consuming, and even scary. But look at these as opportunities to address problems before they reach a courtroom.

Numerous studies have shown that breakdowns in communication between physician and patient are a leading cause of malpractice suits. And if patients can't get you to listen to their grievances, they may be able to find a plaintiffs' attorney who will.

So pay attention to complaints, and tell your staff to listen, also. Give your office manager the authority to resolve nonclinical problems on the spot so that the patient's frustration doesn't escalate.


Patient feedback can provide periodic reality checks on how you're doing. Talking to patients face-to-face is best, of course, but written surveys or even a suggestion box work well, too.

The important thing is to take every complaint seriously. If a patient writes to you, reply promptly with a follow-up note thanking him and expressing your interest in seeing to it that he's satisfied with his care. No matter how the complaint is presented-by letter, e-mail, telephone, or in person-invite the patient to come in to discuss the problem in more detail, at a time when you won't be rushed or interrupted. Find a quiet place in the office to talk, out of the flow of patient and employee traffic.

Be a sincere listener

Let the patient speak first and don't be quick to cut her off. If you don't understand the basis for her unhappiness, ask open-ended questions such as "Could you give me an example of what you're upset about?" or "What do you mean when you say . . . ?"

Express sympathy for the patient's inconvenience or frustration, then present your side of the story in a nondefensive manner. For instance, a patient who feels she isn't making much progress with treatment may be terribly frustrated. Acknowledge that feeling. You can say, "I understand how disappointed you must be that you haven't yet regained much of your strength. I'd feel that way, too."

Tread carefully if the complaint concerns a possible medical error. Patients will usually forgive honest mistakes. However, admissions of guilt or knocks against other physicians can become evidence if you're named in a lawsuit or asked to testify against a colleague.

Showing sincere interest and a strong commitment to resolving the problem are paramount. Ask the patient how she thinks the problem should be dealt with. Then thank her for bringing the situation to your attention, and reassure her that it was the right thing to do. Make sure you follow up; if you promised the patient to take certain actions, let her know when you've done them, or explain why you were unable to do so.

The author, who can be contacted at, is a healthcare attorney in Mt. Kisco, NY, specializing in risk management issues. This department deals with questions on common professional liability issues. We cannot, however, offer specific legal advice. If you have a general question or a topic you’d like to see covered here, please send it to Malpractice Consult, Medical Economics, 123 Tice Blvd., Woodcliff Lake, NJ 07677-7664. You may also fax your question to us at 201-690-5420 or e-mail it to