Responding to a complaint

An opportunity

Complaints provide an opportunity to:

  • respond constructively to concerns
  • learn about how your service can be improved
  • maintain and improve your relationships with consumers of your service; and
  • protect and enhance your reputation.

When complaints are made to the Health Services Commissioner, the service provider is often given an opportunity to reply directly to the person making the complaint.  A high proportion of complaints are resolved by service providers using this opportunity constructively.

The following suggestions, based on our experience, are offered to assist you when you are responding to a complaint.

Decide how to respond

Most service providers respond in writing. Sometimes service providers choose instead to discuss a complaint by phone, or they may offer to meet with the person making the complaint.  It is often appropriate to conclude a written response with an offer to discuss any outstanding issues further.

Clarify the problem

People regularly tell us that they have received lengthy responses to complaints which fail to address their concerns. Please examine the complaint carefully and make sure you are responding to the person’s concerns rather than the issues that are more important from your own perspective.

Respond to the person’s objectives

When people make complaints through the Commission we encourage them to clarify what they hope to achieve through their complaints.  Some people want an apology or an explanation, others want to see improvements in services, some are seeking disciplinary action, and some seek a refund or financial compensation.  Address these objectives wherever possible, then your response will match the problem.

Respond to feelings

Allowing people the opportunity to express their feelings will often defuse a situation.  Please listen to and acknowledge those feelings. People then find it easier to listen to and accept reasonable explanations. Always resist the desire to respond in kind to an angry complainant.

Provide the facts

A good explanation covers all the relevant facts and is written in plain, concise language.  A complainant who finds any inaccurate information may distrust the whole response.

Apologise where appropriate

An apology about an adverse outcome or a regrettable incident will usually be appreciated.  An apology is not an admission of liability.

Don’t delay

Once a complaint has been made, it is very important to respond quickly.  A person who has not received a response inevitably wonders why.  The longer the delay the less likely it is that a reasonable explanation will be accepted.  If a delay in responding is unavoidable (for example, if you need to consult your insurer) please tell us.  We will explain the situation to the complainant.

Review your practice

Often people complain because they do not want what happened to them to happen to anyone else.  They want to see an improvement in the service.  If you are able to improve your service, let the complainant know.  This is a constructive approach and will usually be recognised as such.

Respond to the complainant

It is the consumer of the health service who has the grievance, not the Health Services Commissioner. In many cases, the complaint is sent to you first so that you have the opportunity to resolve the problem by responding directly to the complainant. If you are asked to provide a response to the complaint directly to the Commission, remember that a copy of your response will be given to the complainant. In either case, it is important that you address the concerns of the consumer in a way that will help the complainant listen to and understand your response.


If there are aspects of the complaint which limit what you can say, if there is a personal injuries claim which needs to be considered, or if you feel it might be best to discuss some sensitive issues with an independent third party present, consider requesting conciliation.

Assistance available

Please contact our staff if you wish to discuss any aspect of the complaint or our processes for handling complaints.  We are not representatives of the parties involved, but we can offer impartial assistance.  We aim to find fair and constructive solutions to the problems which lead to complaints.  Discuss any significant legal issues with your defence fund or insurer before responding.