It's ok to complain

Caitilin Punshon
A good relationship with your health provider is important. But sometimes problems can arise. They can be difficult to resolve. Dr Grant Davies is Victoria's Acting Health Services Commissioner. He suggests people approach their health providers directly. Sometimes providers don't realise there is a problem. People can also make more formal complaints. All Australian states and territories have organisations to deal with these complaints. There is also a national agency to investigate more serious matters. Complaints can help improve our healthcare system. It worthwhile remembering that it's ok to complain.
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Caitilin Punshon on 09/05/2013
Unhappy woman talking with her doctor.

A good relationship with your health provider is important

The relationship between a patient and their doctor is an important one. At its best it is based on mutual respect and trust, but unfortunately this is not always the case. There are many reasons why people may feel unhappy about their medical treatment. Yet it is not always clear how to resolve these problems. If you were concerned about some aspect of your healthcare, would you know what to do?

Taking positive action

Dr Grant Davies has some advice for people in this situation. He is Victoria's Acting Health Services Commissioner and he manages complaints about health providers and health services. Dr Davies believes the majority of complaints are caused by miscommunication between patients and practitioners.

Health practitioners go into the business because they want to help people, he says. And they're by and large really good communicators.

At times, however, that communication breaks down. The issue may be to do with treatment, access to services or cost. Occasionally patients are offended by a health provider's behaviour or attitude. In these situations, Dr Davies recommends taking positive action.

Sometimes the provider isn't even aware that there's an issue. So as a first step we would encourage people to go back to their provider and raise it directly with them.

This approach can often resolve the issue. Yet it is not always possible or appropriate to do this. Nor does it always work. Patients may then decide to make a more formal complaint.

Making a complaint

Each state and territory has its own health complaints entity. In Victoria, complaints are made to the Office for the Health Services Commissioner.

We do ask people to provide their complaints in writing, Dr Davies explains. They can do that by either using our online complaint form or just writing to us. If they do contact us by telephone and they have some difficulty in putting their complaint in writing, we'll provide assistance.

The complaints process in Victoria is one of mediation and conciliation. It is designed to clear up confusion between parties. According to Dr Davies, most people who complain to his office are simply seeking an explanation or apology.

If we can help people understand what's happened to them and they become satisfied or that resolves the complaint for them with an apology, that's a really powerful step.

Some issues are more serious, however. They may require further action.

Issues needing investigation

Problems to do with the conduct or performance of a provider are dealt with by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (APHRA). This organisation supports the national boards of 14 health professions. They include doctors, dentists, physiotherapists and psychologists. AHPRA is responsible for investigating matters such as professional misconduct and failures in clinical care. People who are concerned about these things can notify AHPRA using a form on their website.

Understanding the role of these different agencies can be confusing. But as Dr Davies observes, The national law requires us to consult with each other so that the best organisation to deal with that issue receives that complaint.  This happens regardless of where the complaint is first made.

It's ok to complain

It may seem confronting to make a complaint against a health provider or health service. But Dr Davies sees complaints as an opportunity to learn and improve. Complaints are a positive thing for us, he says. If we can get some quality change out of our complaints process, that's a great outcome.

His message is clear. It's ok to ask questions and it's ok to complain. That advice is worth keeping in mind. Not only does it mean we can improve our own healthcare. We can also improve the system for everyone.

For more information on making a complaint against a health provider or health service, visit these websites:

To learn more about making a complaint about a Victorian disability service, visit the website of the Victorian Disability Services Commissioner.

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