Our complaint culture isn't good for doctors' wellbeing
Published 15/07/2015 | 02:30
Doctors and patients are going through a bad patch. We're increasingly complaining about their mistakes, their bad attitude and the fact that they don't seem have time for us any more.
The Medical Council has just published its first ever review of complaints and it appears that they are up 46pc in five years. What patients are objecting to is a long and sorry list of wrongdoings - some of them trivial, some tragic, some, it has to be said, imaginary.
But most complaints fall into none of these categories because they are about the way medical staff sometimes behave. Poor experience of doctors' behaviours and attitudes are actually our most common grievances.
We are visiting our doctors more than ever (the average GP in Ireland sees about 30 patients a day) and are quite shameless about dragging them out of bed in the middle of the night, even though they are most likely to be manning an out-of-hours service and will need to work the next day in their regular job. You see, we have increasingly high expectations. We want more from our health service. There's a growing culture of complaint, and we're encouraged all around us to complain. And it's not always in our own best health interests.
In the past a doctor might have tried to educate the patient; these days, fearful of getting a complaint or even litigation, there is a growing tendency to just go ahead with the treatment. It's called defensive medicine. Our ability to complain has improved, and rightly so. But doctors are under greater pressures now and time is short - around seven minutes per GP consultation - that they must often move more quickly than etiquette allows. GPs running fundholding practices are increasingly consumed by financial pressures and administrative issues. When we visit they barely have time to treat patients, let alone an opportunity to build up a relationship.
A survey of 492 Irish GPs by the UK-based Medical Protection Society found that, for 90pc of respondents, the most stressful factor facing them was increased patient expectations. The second most stressful factor was an increasing risk of litigation, cited by 77pc of respondents, while heavy workloads was listed as a stress factor by 75pc of those questioned.
The Medical Protection Society found that stress is having a big impact on the doctors' personal lives, health and general well-being.
Almost a third of Ireland's GPs (31pc) expect they will leave the profession in the next five years according to another survey commissioned by the NAGP, and only 16pc would recommend the profession to their children. Nearly 47pc of general practices are currently in debt.
On Newstalk's Pat Kenny show last Monday, Medical Council President, Freddie Wood, spoke at length about the report but never really - it seemed to me - acknowledged the doctors' side. At the end of the segment a caller complained about GP consults only lasting five minutes. A second caller objected about having to wait for 20 minutes for her last appointment. This is clearly a contradiction in expectations. If a doctor is late shouldn't you consider that, next time, it might be you who needs 40 minutes?
Doctors are not superhuman but just ordinary mortals with valuable medical skills that are worth respecting. They have been knocked off their pedestals but a new doctor-patient relationship, one of mutual respect and cooperation, looks further away than ever - especially since the vast majority of our grumbles seem to be more a symptom of our 'me first' culture than any wrongdoings on a doctor's part.
Surely, if a doctor is diagnosing and prescribing correctly, a sympathetic head tilt isn't really relevant and potentially disrupting an already stressed doctor's career with a complaint about his personality is redundant and wrong. It's about time the Medical Council defended its doctors as well as patients.