Regulatory mechanisms including complaints aim to protect the public by remedying identified problems with doctors’ performance, conduct or health. Existing literature has consistently found that the experience leaves many doctors emotionally, physically and psychologically harmed, and many undergo behavioural changes. These effects can affect family, friends and colleagues, and their work, so patients may also suffer when a doctor is not practising optimally.
This study aims to explore the underlying reasons. Australian doctors were invited to share their experience and to explore what it was about the process that caused them consternation and distress, and how they dealt with it.
Using semi-structured, in-depth interviews with seventeen self-selected doctors, a narrative approach enabled a deep examination of doctors’ personal reactions, perceptions and attitudes to the complaints process, of their professional values and beliefs, and the deeper significance of having a complaint.
Five expert informants, who provide professional support to doctors, were also interviewed to obtain their perspective on how doctors respond to complaints and how they deal with the process.
Administrative issues, uncertainty about how decisions were being made, and perceptions of unfairness were some of the issues, with many perceiving they are being held guilty until they prove themselves innocent, while the adversarial nature of the process made them defensive and cautious.
This study confirms the findings of previous research and provides additional value by explaining the underlying reasons for their distress. Contextualised in today’s medico-legal environment, the study shows that the law, once introduced to protect the profession, now exists to protect the public. The consequences of this shift have enhanced the goals of public protection, trust and confidence, but they have also had a profound effect on those doctors who are directly affected.