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September 19, 2012

Complaints, I’ve had a few
Filed under: Private Eye — Dr. Phil @ 10:26 am
Phil Hammond shares the woes of the GP
The Times

Published at 12:01AM, September 19 2012

When I was training to be a GP, I had two complaints. One was from a patient who didn’t want a ginger-haired doctor, which I felt was a little harsh, and one from the wife of a man who’d died from a malignant melanoma and thought I should have spotted it, which was entirely legitimate. The first woman was reassured by a second opinion that I was in fact strawberry blond. The second woman accepted my apology but never came to see me again.

Her husband had come to see me with diarrhoea and I hadn’t spotted the melanoma on his back. In a six-minute consultation, five of those are taken up by getting the clothes on and off (the patient’s, not mine).

Trying to spot something potentially life-threatening in a minute is both the art and science of medicine and, under such time pressure, we’re never going to get it right first time, every time. But I still curse myself for not turning him over.

Modern medicine harms one in ten patients but, if doctors are open and honest, complaints rarely go further. News yesterday that complaints made to the General Medical Council (GMC) about doctors have risen 23 per cent in the past year suggests that we don’t have the time to sit down and explain what’s happened, and to say sorry. Some complaints are ridiculous — an obstetrician got one for “sweating profusely” while trying to pull out a baby whose shoulders had got stuck — and you should hear the things doctors say about patients in the privacy of the coffee room.

Perhaps we should have one day a year when doctors tell patients the truth about what we think about them. I’ve only known one GP brave enough to do this. He was a senior partner, close to retirement, who summoned patients with “Come on, you big jelly belly. Get that great flabby arse in here.” So maybe too much honesty is a bad thing. But communication is a two-way street, and if doctors and patients treated each other with more compassion, the GMC would have far less work to do.

Phil Hammond is a doctor, comedian and broadcaster.