David Peat'I always try to acknowledge a complaint myself when it arrives on our doorstep, and I always sign off our response. It helps me keep in touch with patients' perceptions - their sense of grievance, injustice or perplexity.'

David Peat

It's no use complaining about complaints. It's part of the business. They go with the territory. If you take the plaudits, you take the criticism and you learn from it. Duties and responsibilities, noblesse obligeand all that.

But what about our attitude to the process? Can we learn best practice from other organisations and the process itself?

I always try to acknowledge a complaint myself when it arrives on our doorstep, and I always sign off our response. It helps me keep in touch with patients' perception - their often deeply felt sense of grievance, injustice or perplexity at a situation they or their loved ones find themselves confronting.

Emotion and fear can play a big part in their perceptions, but they are our clients and our customers and I take their heartfelt views seriously.

Complaints are often about communications, how someone is informed (or not) about an issue, how quickly they have been dealt with or how and in what manner they were received. Sometimes, it's an issue of how they were handed over (from primary to secondary care, for example), and sometimes it's about a lack of patient empowerment.

So it was a salutary and informative experience to find myself in the role of potential complainant to the airline industry when my luggage disappeared into a black hole.

I was travelling from Manchester to Boston via Heathrow, using two different airlines. The day started badly: I was told that I would have to reclaim my luggage in London, and my flight was late taking off from Manchester.

Two kinds of response

On arrival in London, I had the stomach-churning experience of seeing all my fellow passengers claim their baggage from the conveyor but not me. The airline had an office with a couple of staff, one whose body language indicated distinct boredom with the job. I was given a number and a brochure, and told to speak to the second airline.

With the second airline, things were different. Details were taken, and I was met immediately on arrival in Boston and given a direct line telephone number. On ringing it, I found out that the bags had been identified and loaded on the next plane out. The call centre was efficient, gave a realistic time frame and the bags arrived earlier than scheduled.

As a customer of health or airlines, I expect to receive the service promised. I expect accurate, clear communication about processes and timing. Handovers are critical and, although I recognise that 'stuff happens', accepting a level of error is not good enough. It is our health, our treatment, our suitcases.

Having a contact who sorts out the problems and checks the outcome afterwards leaves a warm glow rather than a towering rage. I was called in the US and back in England to check if things had gone as planned in the recovery of the luggage. Impressive or what? I will fly with the second airline again, but not the first - and I'll feel free to tell others about my experience.

The experience made me reflect on the whole issue of grievances and complainants. In future, I won't sign the complaints letters quite as early or without questioning whether everything possible has been done to help me. Stuff does happen - and it's how you deal with it that matters.

I refuse to have a 'blame culture' in our organisation because I want to encourage a willingness to admit errors without fear so they can be reported and learned from. The essence is that we do all we can to put things right, to satisfy the client and demonstrate our willingness to help.

David Peat is chief executive at East Lancashire PCT and a finalist in the Primary Care Organisation category at theHSJ awards