In our last article, we discussed the steps to be followed in the event a member of a professional body or organization is the object of a complaint. In short, we offered ten tips on how to deal with it quickly and effectively. This article is intended as a general guide to prevent a complaint from being filed against you, focusing on prevention instead of "cure".
Subsequent articles will address in greater detail the themes identified below.
Know and be aware of your professional environment
Many complaints stem from the fact that some professionals do not know and are not as familiar as they should be with the standards of practice as well as the rules of conduct and ethics governing their profession.
Most professional bodies and organizations post recent decisions on matters regarding allegations of misconduct or unprofessional conduct on their Web sites. Given that these rules and their application in specific circumstances change over time and as new scenarios arise, it is important for professionals to stay abreast of these developments.
As regards to professional knowledge, it is acquired through continuing education. For example, the knowledge health professionals had of the brain is much more advanced today than it was ten years ago. As such, they need to be up to date in order to properly apply current knowledge in their practice. Training sessions and the review of recently published journal articles are essential.
Communicate with your clients, patients and colleagues
The fact that an incident has occurred, such as a breach of client confidentiality, does not necessarily mean that a complaint will be filed with the body or organization governing the profession.
Often, a complaint may be the result of a lack of communication between the family of a patient and the practitioner, or between a teacher and a parent, for example. In the field of education, notes in the agenda of a student or a telephone conversation between the teacher and the parent to clarify certain points can often help both sides keep abreast of the student's progress in class as well as take appropriate actions by avoiding surprises.
The exchange of knowledge, strategies and experiences with colleagues can also help avoid unexpected situations that could arise from a lack of experience or knowledge on the part of the professional.
Understand the risks
It is almost impossible to avoid a risk if you do not understand it. In addition to communicating with clients, patients and colleagues, as well as continuous learning, a professional must also exercise good judgment, a quality that is probably the most effective tool for avoiding risk. For instance, for a teacher, good judgment will often translate into the practice of never closing the classroom door when alone with a student. For a health professional, it will include the implementation of policies on patient information confidentiality. When in doubt, it is better to speak with more experienced colleagues to avoid an unfortunate situation.
Take detailed notes
When an incident occurs, regardless of whether you believe it will result in a complaint, it is normally advisable to take detailed notes. These notes may include the date, time, place, parties involved, a description of the incident, the response from participants, witnesses and so on. As memory fades, this information may become useful later if a patient, client, employer or other person inquires about the incident. Being able to provide a detailed version of the incident could preclude any misunderstanding arising from a lack of relevant information.
Have an incident reporting strategy or consult someone immediately
Often, at least initially, only the professional involved is aware of an incident. As such, it may be useful to have an incident reporting strategy. Likewise, employers often have in place a reasonable workplace incident reporting policy. If this is the case, it is important to adhere to the spirit and letter of this policy.
However, depending on the employer and nature of the incident, it may be that there is no established procedure to report what happened. In such cases, you may want to consider various strategies based on the nature of the incident and related circumstances. For instance, you may decide to immediately notify your employer and confirm same in writing. If you are represented by a union, you may want to immediately notify the union and/or professional association for advice on how best to proceed. In the absence of a union, you can hire a legal advisor who will guide you through a reporting strategy in order to ensure you act in your best interests.
It is important to note that in some cases, failure to immediately notify your employer could be interpreted as a lack of honesty on your part, as a professional, and that could lead to tougher sanctions.
*The above information is intended as general guidance and does not constitute legal advice. Each case is unique and will depend on the facts and context.
Author: Julie Skinner, © Nelligan O'Brien Payne LLP 2011