BMJ Open. 2015 Jan 15;5(1):e006687. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-006687.

The impact of complaints procedures on the welfare, health and clinical practise of 7926 doctors in the UK: across-sectional survey.

Bourne T1, Wynants L2, Peters M3, Van Audenhove C4, Timmerman D5, Van Calster B6, Jalmbrant M7.

 

Abstract

OBJECTIVES:

The primary aim was to investigate the impact of complaints on doctors‘ psychological welfare and health. The secondary aim was to assess whether doctors report exposure to a complaints process is associated with defensive medical practise.

DESIGN:

This was a cross-sectional anonymous survey study. Participants were stratified into recent/current, past, no complaints. Each group completed tailored versions of the survey.

PARTICIPANTS:

95 636 doctors were invited to participate. A total of 10 930(11.4%) responded, 7926 (8.3%) completed the full survey and were included in the complete analysis.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES:

Anxiety and depression were assessed using the standardised Generalised Anxiety Disorder scale and PhysicalHealth Questionnaire. Defensive practise was evaluated using a new measure. Single-item questions measured stress-related illnesses, complaints-related experience, attitudes towards complaints and views on improving complaints processes.

RESULTS:

16.9% of doctors with current/recent complaints reported moderate/severe depression (relative risk (RR) 1.77 (95% CI 1.48 to 2.13) compared to doctors with no complaints (9.5%)). Fifteen per cent reported moderate/severe anxiety (RR=2.08 (95% CI 1.61 to 2.68) compared todoctors with no complaints (7.3%)). Distress increased with complaint severity, with highest levels after General Medical Council ( GMC ) referral (26.3% depression, 22.3% anxiety). Doctors with current/recent complaints were 2.08 (95% CI 1.61 to 2.68) times more likely to report thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation. Most doctors reported defensive practise: 82-89% hedging and 46-50% avoidance. Twenty per cent felt victimised after whistleblowing, 38% felt bullied, 27% spent over 1 month off work. Over 80% felt processes would improve with transparency, managerial competence, capacity to claim lost earnings and action against vexatious complainants.

CONCLUSIONS:

Doctors with recent/current complaints have significant risks of moderate/severe depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. Morbidity was greatest in cases involving the GMC . Most doctors reported practising defensively, including avoidance of procedures and high-risk patients. Many felt victimised as whistleblowers or reported bullying. Suggestions to improve complaints processes included transparency and managerial competence.

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KEYWORDS:

OCCUPATIONAL & INDUSTRIAL MEDICINE