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Complaints in healthcare: a practical guide to giving constructive feedback

It was rather unfortunate that I had to make a complaint against a doctor recently. Due to its confidentiality, I won’t be delving into any details here. All I can say is that it was my very first complaint of such nature and I am not proud of it. Making a complaint against someone from your own profession was at best – horrendous. It meant that I admitted to the sad fact that I have been treated poorly by a colleague. But, I know that filing it was a necessary first step towards improvement. So, I did.

As I was filing the complaint, I had doubts about whether I should make it formal. I wasn’t sure whether I was doing the right thing and I didn’t want my complaint to go unnoticed or worse – wasted. I wanted it to make a difference (even if it is small), to change the way some doctors practice and possibly improve outcomes for other patients. I’m sure many who have preceded me have felt the same way. But, there is no guideline that could help point us in the right direction and ensure that our complaints turn out constructive.

The closest to such a guideline that I’ve come across is the brief general advice written in the FAQ section of the feedback website (more on this later). However, it focuses more on answering questions related to the feedback process rather acting as a guide to help you make better and more constructive feedback. Although some may argue the need for feedback guidelines, I believe there is no better time for one. The number of complaints in healthcare is rising, perhaps it may help reduce the numbers or increase their quality.

Opportunities lie in the place where the complaints are.

Jack Ma

Disclaimer: This is a practical guide to making a complaint in the healthcare setting. It is based on my own experience and opinion. It is not an official guideline issued by the Ministry of Health. It is intended to be used when making a complaint or giving feedback (in particular, negative ones) in order to increase its effectiveness. It is structured in the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) format to help you navigate any specific issues you are concern about.

Who should make a complaint?

Anyone could make a complaint. You could make a complaint if you are a patient, family members, guardians, friends, hospital personnel etc. Just make sure you know the exact details of the issue at hand and preferably have supporting evidence before doing so because it will be of help when the complaint is further investigated. Many complaints were categorised as ‘baseless’ after further investigation due to lack of details or evidence. If you want to complain constructively, do your due diligence.

What should you complaint about?

Any issue pertaining to safety, healthcare outcomes as well as ethics and professionalism (but not limited to those affecting patients only). These are high impact issues which need to be raised and addressed to avoid continuous shortfalls. Curbing those issues, starting with a complaint about it, will save resources for both healthcare providers and users down the line. Also, keeping your complaints within this scope will almost always ensure that the complaints are effective and constructive.

Should I make my complaints formal?

Absolutely, provided the issue fulfils the criteria stated above. Remember, an informal complaint lodged to healthcare personnel verbally without a supporting formal written document will often be taken less seriously and may just escape the attention of those that could make things go right. This may render the complaint less effective. If you are looking to make a difference through your complaints, this is the step that you need to pay your attention to.

What about written complaints on social media or other written publications?

Please avoid this at all costs. Although some believe that airing grievances on social media or other written publications will get them the attention that they require to make things better at a much faster rate, I believe it is counterproductive. Often complaints made on such platforms get blown out of proportion and obscures the intention behind it, making investigations into the issue much more difficult than it otherwise would have been. So stick to the appropriate channel to preserve the integrity of your complaints.

How do I make a formal complaint?

It is preferable that all formal feedback (negative or positive) related to the Malaysian Healthcare Services, is lodged into Sistem Pengurusan Aduan Awam (SISPAA). Type in all the details of the issue that you are raising and your contact details as required in the Maklumbalas Baharu page. Don’t forget to attach any supporting evidence that you may have. If you prefer other modes of communication please go to SISPAA’s FAQs section for details of other available feedback channels (e.g. email, fax, snail mail).

How to complain effectively?

  • Describe the situation clearly.
  • State problem(s) that you feel may arise from the situation.
  • Express your concern appropriately.
  • Suggest a solution to the problem.
  • Explain why your suggested solution may work given the situation.
  • Reinforce your intention of giving constructive feedback.

What to avoid when making a complaint?

  • Using profanity (my advice: calm yourself first before making a complaint)
  • Focusing on the problem without suggesting any solution.
  • Insulting, blaming, attacking or threatening.

We are only humans. Sometimes, in the heat of things, negative feedback could take a turn for the worse. Without any guideline, things could quickly spiral out of control. It is my hope that this practical guide may be able to help myself and others become more effective and constructive when giving (negative) feedback or filing complaints. Instead of pointing fingers, constructive feedback or complaints would allow us to focus on improvement measures. Isn’t that why we feel compelled to complain in the first place?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


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