We live in extremely volatile and stressful times. Many healthcare workers are feeling the strain and pressure of trying to do the best job they can under less than perfect conditions.

It is not unlikely that at some point a patient or family member of a patient may complain about the nursing care provided. If you are a nurse in California you know that while complaints are part of the job, some complaints can grow into a serious threat to your position or career.

Steps to take when a patient complains

Not every complaint is valid. Sometimes patients and family members, in the throes of fear and grief, lash out at the nearest caregiver. This is a normal human reaction. But there are steps that nurses and care providers can take to ensure they are both giving patients the best care possible and protecting their jobs.

As stated in the oft-cited 2003 Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings Journal, “anger is the way people respond to unmet needs or expectations.” So instead of trying to avoid the patient or the family (as we are prone to do) work instead to meet the unmet needs or expectations and, as stating in Nursing Times, communicate with them. You can also do these things to ensure the patient knows they are important and they are heard:

  1. Don’t multi-task when a patient or family member is talking to you. While this seems an impossible option sometimes what the patient really wants is to be heard.
  2. Offer a compassionate response. While this can be hard to do in an urgent situation, sometimes a simple, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this,” can be what the patient or family needs to hear. Eschew taking responsibility for any adverse results but do offer sympathy.
  3. Make sure you understand the patient or the family’s concern. Maybe all they want is a glass of ice water or an extra pillow or blanket.
  4. Respond that you will take the action needed and thank the patient or family for letting you know about how they feel.
  5. Keep a detailed record of everything that was said or done if you feel a complaint is serious or will escalate.

It’s important to remember that patients are less likely to take steps that negatively impact a healthcare provider’s career when the patient has a positive relationship with that care provider. Small kind acts and a few minutes spent listening can create a sense of trust and empathy with a patient or family member who feels scared and vulnerable.

If things do escalate and you receive a notice from the California Board of Registered Nursing that a complaint has been filed about you, contact an attorney who works in California professional license defense immediately.