View from the ground, by Dr Sarah Merrifield


Dr Sarah Merrifield

Last week, I rang British Gas to give them my meter readings. The phone call was very straightforward, took 5 minutes, and I saved lots of money—great success!

The next day I received a call: ‘Could you give us some feedback on your call to us?’ asked the automated voice. No, I couldn’t (be bothered), so I hung up. The next day an email came: ‘Don’t forget to send us feedback regarding your call’. Delete. And the next day? ‘REMINDER: YOU STILL NEED TO SEND US FEEDBACK REGARDING YOUR CALL.’

As exciting as they may be, this isn’t an article about my utilities. What I want to call into question is the value of feedback. Have we become a bit obsessed with the act of giving and receiving feedback? And has it all become a bit meaningless as a result?

A family member had an endoscopy a few weeks ago. ‘Would you recommend this procedure to a friend?’ asked the form handed to him at the end. ‘Yes! I’m sure my friends would love a tube shoved down their throat!’ is what he didn’t write. I’m sure there are good intentions here, but it just seems a bit baffling.

The need to feed back is also omnipresent in my training. After any course, ‘you’ll get your certificate as soon as you complete the feedback survey’. Any teaching session, ‘you can go home once you’ve completed the feedback form.’ As part of the mandatory training requirements, ‘please could you complete this feedback form for me (oh wonderful member of staff who I’ve made 3 cups of tea for this week)’. I’ve even been threatened with disciplinary action and had to write a letter of apology for forgetting to give feedback.

I can’t be the only person who mindlessly ticks their way through the Likert scales without putting a huge amount of thought into it (most likely having already completed at least 3 feedback forms earlier that day). Very good. Very good. Very good. Very good. Done.

Feedback can be useful if it’s specific and constructive. But the constant need to tick boxes and rate everything on a scale seems to render the whole concept a bit useless. Surely the point of giving feedback is to help things to improve? Does having a summary that says ‘oh look, 66% of trainees thought this was very good, 33% thought it was good, ooh and 1% thought it was OK’ actually mean anything? We seem to have a constant need to quantify what is essentially qualitative information. 

Voluntary free text comments can be useful, but tend to be offered only by those with polarised opinions; if you read TripAdvisor, iWantGreatCare, or any other comments section, said opinions tend to be offered by those who absolutely love or hate something. These strong emotional responses tend to lack constructive points and don’t necessarily offer a true picture.

Feedback can be invaluable and lead to positive changes or reinforcement, but when constantly forced it loses its utility. So, I would therefore like to offer feedback some feedback. Can we do away with the endless numerical scales? And keep it simple, specific, constructive, and only for things that really matter?

Before you go, please don’t forget to give me some feedback. Thank you.

Dr Sarah Merrifield

GP trainee