How patients are told to make a complaint

Doctors get advice on responding to complaints, but what are patients advised about making them? Solicitor Chris James offers these tips on the Patients Association website – which both parties have agreed to share with readers.

1Consider who the best person is to deal with your complaint. There are a number of options, so look at available resources – for example, the Patients Association’s ‘making a complaint’ leaflet or the guidance offered by the NHS in relation to complaints. 

You may want to raise the complaint informally first, without labelling it as a ‘letter of complaint’; for example, writing to say you have ‘concerns’. 

You will also generally have the option to complain to the healthcare provider themselves – for example, the GP practice or your treating hospital – or, if you are uncomfortable doing that, to the body overseeing the care; for example, NHS England.

2Think carefully about the important questions that you or the family want answered. The complaint process is probably the best opportunity for you to get answers or an explanation, so take your time. 

If another person has an interest in the complaint, such as the rest of the family, it might be a good idea to have a discussion and ensure everyone’s concerns are included.

3It is hard to do, but try to take the emotion out of what you write. You may well be very entitled to be angry and upset about what has happened, but it is unlikely to help your cause to write in that way. 


Try to stick to the facts, ask the questions and raise the concerns you have. You want to get empathy from whoever is reading it and directing anger at them, however justified it may be, is unlikely to achieve that.

4If you are considering bringing a clinical negligence claim, do not worry too much about ‘saying the wrong thing’ in a complaint letter or meeting. 

The two processes are entirely separate. It would be quite unusual for something said by a patient or family member to damage any later claim. If you are honest, there shouldn’t be a problem.

5Set out below are some tips on setting out the letter clearly.

The aim of any piece of writing is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand. If you are trying to persuade someone of something, make it as easy as possible for the person to come around to your point of view. 

Practical tips include:

 State the date that the incident/issues that have occurred; 

 Use headings to break up the detail; 

 Use bullet points or numbers to separate your points or questions. 

Try to keep only the most important bits in and ask the most important questions. Of course, include all important details, but perhaps think to yourself ‘does the reader need to know this to understand my complaint or answer my concerns?’ 

Make your best point(s) first and ask your most important question(s) first. Don’t leave it to the end when people are less engaged. 

Be clear about the outcome(s) that you want. This could be an explanation of why something did or didn’t happen, an apology or proposals to ensure the same issue doesn’t happen again. 

Leave the letter to go cold for a few days and then come back to it. It is amazing what a fresh mind can see: things you had forgotten or parts you realised you didn’t need or should reword.

Chris James (right) is a solicitor with Bolt Burdon Kemp and his wording is taken from the Patients Association website and used with permission