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Unsupported doctors at risk of depression during long complaints investigations

Doctors with complaints lodged against them feel the investigation process was needlessly protracted and they are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.

These are the key findings of a study published in BMJ Open, which explores the impact on doctors of how complaints against them are managed.

A survey of over 6000 doctors in the UK reveals that poor process, prolonged timescales and vexatious use of complaints systems are associated with decreased psychological welfare and increased defensive practice.

In contrast, perceived support from colleagues and management is associated with a reduction in these effects.

Most doctors felt supported by colleagues (61%) during the complaints process, but only 31% felt supported by management.

Criticisms from respondents included not following process (56%), protracted timescales (78%), vexatious complaints (49%), feeling bullied (39%) or victimised for whistleblowing (20%), and using complaints to undermine (31%).

Doctors worried most about professional humiliation following a complaint investigation (80%).

The report authors said: “Our data suggest that how doctors respond to complaints is associated with their perception of the fairness of the process used to investigate them and the behaviour of colleagues involved.

“The RR of anxiety and depression was increased when doctors reported the timescale of a complaint was protracted, processes were not followed or used inappropriately and managers or colleagues used complaints processes to their advantage.

“Importantly, psychological morbidity increased when complaints were associated with a dysfunctional team, whistleblowing and bullying. Conversely, evidence of good process such as being kept well-informed and accurate minute taking was associated with improved psychological welfare and less defensive practice. Feeling supported by colleagues was associated with the greatest positive impact.”

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