Paths to resolution


The first step was the hardest. The last step changed everything.

Jane hesitated for days before finally picking up the phone to dial the complaints line at the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Alberta. Am I justified in calling? What will the College think? Will my physician find out?

Jane is not alone. Complaining about a physician – a professional who has taken care of you and maybe your family for years – is not easy. However, after making that first call, what Jane discovered is how Patient Advocates at the College are there to help. Within the first few minutes, Susan felt more at ease. At the other end of the line was Marilyn Brown, a Patient Advocate at the College for eight years. Marilyn showed no judgement, only professionalism and fairness as she asked questions to understand and clarify Jane’s unique situation.

... many complaints are about breakdowns in communication or misunderstandings that can be resolved directly between the physicians and the patient.
— Marilyn Brown, CPSA Patient Advocate

In Jane’s case, she was upset about a conversation she’d had with her doctor. Marilyn explained to Jane the College’s complaints process and offered options on how to proceed. She also suggested Jane might want to talk to her physician before filing a formal complaint. Marilyn understands many complaints are about breakdowns in communications, or misunderstandings that can be resolved directly between the physician and the patient. Often what the patient wants most is an explanation, an acknowledgement or an apology.

Jane took Marilyn’s advice and booked an appointment with her doctor. The physician listened, appreciated Jane’s frankness and apologized for her part in the miscommunication. Jane later thanked Marilyn and explained how talking directly with her doctor changed everything. Today her relationship with her doctor is stronger than ever.

“Not all complaints are this straightforward,” notes Marilyn. “In more complex cases, patient advocates can help guide complainants through what can be a lengthy process. We’re there to attend interviews with them (in person or by telephone), answer their questions about the process, and debrief the final decision with them at the end.”

For Marilyn, a hard part of her job is telling complainants when the College has dismissed their case. “Their complaint is important and real to them, but we have specific codes and standards that define professional conduct for our members,” she explains. “If the physician has met those minimum expectations, there’s no basis to go further.” Even during these difficult conversations, Marilyn tries to help the complainant understand the College’s position.

Complaining about a physician will never be easy, but Patient Advocates like Marilyn will always listen and help complainants find a path to resolution. Being named in a complaint can also help the physician learn something valuable about their practice and make necessary changes that will ultimately benefit all their patients. 

See more about the role of patient advocates and the College’s complaints process.

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Hearings – a rare outcome

Disciplining unprofessional conduct is our regulatory duty – the public and the medical profession expects no less. However, only a small handful of complaints are serious enough to result in a formal hearing with penalty. More complaints are straightforward, requiring the physician to make practice changes. For these complaints, we work directly with the physician offering resources and education toward practice improvement. For single-issue complaints about practice management or communication, we step back and encourage the physician to work directly with the complainant to resolve the matter. Whichever process we use to resolve complaints, our goal is to ensure the public receives safe and effective medical care from competent physicians.