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How to complain about a doctor

Introduction

Patients have a number of rights set out in the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights. You can obtain a copy of the code from the Health and Disability Commissioner (phone 0800 112 233). For information on the rights under the Code, see How to be aware of and enforce your rights as a patient.

Doctors also have a code of ethics imposed on them that they must abide by.

What are a doctor's obligations towards patients?

A doctor's obligations include the following:

  • to consider the patient's health and well-being as the first priority
  • to recognise any limitations that the doctor has, and to recognise the skills of others in the area in question
  • to protect the secrets of the patient even after the patient has died
  • to obtain the patient's consent to all proposed treatments and procedures before they are performed or administered

Your rights under the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights

Patients also have the right to be treated with respect, to not be discriminated against, to be kept fully informed, and to be able to complain if their rights as patients are breached. These rights are contained in the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights: for more details, see How to be aware of and enforce your rights as a patient.

To whom should I make my complaint?

The Code of Rights gives you a number of options as to whom to make a complaint. While you're entitled to complain directly to the Health and Disability Commissioner, the Commissioner recommends that you first complain directly to the doctor or hospital concerned.

Your complaint doesn't have to be in writing. You can complain in any way that is appropriate to you.

What does the doctor or hospital have to do about my complaint?

The Code of Rights contains detailed rules about what health professionals must do when they receive a complaint. They must:

  • write to you within five days to acknowledge your complaint
  • try as far as possible to resolve the complaint in a fair, simple, speedy and efficient way
  • keep you informed regularly (at least once a month) about how they are handling your complaint
  • keep you informed about any complaints procedures that you're entitled to use (this includes procedures that are internal to their organisation and also external procedures, such as going to the Health and Disability Commissioner and to a Health and Disability Consumer Advocate)
  • keep records of your complaint and of the action they take in response to it, and
  • give you all relevant information that they hold about your complaint

The doctor or hospital has 10 working days after acknowledging your complaint to decide whether it accepts or rejects your complaint. If they decide they need more time, they must decide how much more time is needed. If the extra time is more than 20 working days, they must tell you about this and the reasons why they want more time.

When the doctor or hospital have decided whether or not they think your complaint is justified, they must give you their decision and the reasons for it. They must tell you what action they propose to take, and any appeal procedure they have set up for complaints.

What if I'm not happy with the response from the doctor or hospital?

If you're not satisfied after you've complained directly to the doctor or hospital, you can complain to the Health and Disability Commissioner.

How do I complain to the Commissioner?

You can complain in any of the following ways:

  • by writing to the Commissioner's office at:
    • PO Box 1791
      Auckland, or
    • PO Box 12 299
      Wellington
  • by phoning them on:
    • Auckland – (09) 373 1060
    • Wellington – (04) 494 7900
    • other areas – 0800 112 233

Who can complain to the Commissioner?

Complaints to the Commissioner about the treatment of a patient can also be made by family members or friends of the patient, or by other medical staff.

How will the Commissioner deal with my complaint?

The Health and Disability Commissioner will consider how the complaint may best be investigated or dealt with. Under reforms introduced on 19 September 2004, the Commissioner has greater flexibility in deciding on the most appropriate way of resolving the complaint, including referring the matter to some other body or official without formally investigating the complaint himself or herself. For more details of these changes, see How to be aware of and enforce your rights as a patient.

One of the options available to the Commissioner is to refer the complaint to a Health and Disability Consumer Advocate to assist the parties in trying to resolve the matter. For the role of these Advocates and how to contact them, see How to be aware of and enforce your rights as a patient.

The Commissioner can also refer your complaint to the New Zealand Medical Council. If this occurs, the complaint will be considered by a complaints assessment committee, which may then refer the matter on to the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal. The Disciplinary Tribunal may make various orders if it upholds the complaint, including giving a censure, ordering the doctor to pay a fine, and suspending or cancelling the doctor's registration as a medical practitioner.

If the Health and Disability Commissioner investigates the complaint and finds there was a breach of the Code, he or she can, among other options, refer your complaint to the Director of Proceedings so that the Director can decide whether to bring proceedings in the Human Rights Review Tribunal. Whereas the powers of the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal are focused on taking action against the particular doctor, by contrast the Human Rights Review Tribunal has powers that can redress matters for the patient. This includes ordering the doctor to pay damages to the patient or to take some other action to remedy the complaint.

For more details on complaints to the Commissioner generally, see How to be aware of and enforce your rights as a patient.

Cautionary notes
  • Although a doctor must keep patient-doctor confidentiality, a doctor may refuse to treat a patient who is under the age of 16 if the patient refuses to obtain parental consent.
  • There are always chances of treatment being unsuccessful, and a particular treatment will generally have a natural and expected failure rate. Sometimes a medical complaint results in a finding that the outcome of the particular treatment was within the normal range of medical or surgical failure. The best course of action is to have your claim or complaint put forward by your lawyer.


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