Aim: To characterise doctors' responses to complaints.
Method: Survey of a systematic sample of New Zealand doctors, and indepth interviews with 12 doctors who recently received complaints.
Results: 714 written survey responses and 12 indepth interviews revealed changes consistent with positive and negative defensive medicine as well as changes in the direction of "good practice". Positive defensive medicine changes were increased investigation and referral rates, active identification of potential problem patients, over-documentation and consenting, and altered approaches to time and workload. Negative defensive medicine changes involved withdrawal from the doctor-patient relationship and particular fields of practice. Good practice changes included reflective practice, greater sensitivity to societal and professional expectations, and initiating systemic change.
Conclusions: The complaints process in New Zealand has the potential to improve healthcare delivery at a systemic level and to reinforce appropriate standards of professional behaviour, but it may cause individual doctors to practice defensively. Unless an appropriate educational process is allied to the complaints process, defensive medicine may compromise patient care and constrain potential improvements in healthcare delivery overall.