Background: A pilot study was conducted to learn whether an academic medical center's database of patient complaints would reveal particular service units (or clinics) with disproportionate shares of patient complaints, the types of complaints patients have about those units, and the types of personnel about whom the complaints were made.
Results: During the seven-year (December 1991-November 1998) study period, Office of Patient Affairs staff recorded 6,419 reports containing 15,631 individual complaints. More than 40% of the reports contained a single complaint. One-third of the reports contained three or more complaints. Complaints were associated with negative perceptions of care and treatment (29%), communication (22%), billing and payment (20%), humaneness of staff (13%), access to staff (9%), and cleanliness or safety of the environment (7%). Complaints were not evenly distributed across the medical center's various units, even when the data were corrected for numbers of patient visits to clinics or bed days in the hospital. The greatest proportion of complaints were associated with physicians.
Discussion: Complaint-based report cards may be used in interventions in which peers share the data with unit managers and seek to learn the nature of the problems, if any, that underlie the complaints. Such interventions should influence behavioral and systems changes in some units.
Summary and conclusions: Further experience should indicate how different types of complaints lead to different kinds of interventions and improvements in care. Tests of the system are also currently under way in several nonacademic community medical centers.