Objectives: To survey complainants' experience and the outcome of lodging a complaint about medical treatment.
Design and setting: Random sample survey. A 32-item questionnaire was sent to 500 complainants by the New South Wales Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC), and responses were returned reply-paid to the university.
Participants: 290 people with complaints finalised by the HCCC between February 1996 and August 1997.
Outcome measures: Profile of complainants and doctor involved; type and place of incident; complainants' emotions at the time of the incident and at the conclusion of the complaints process; outcome of complaint, and satisfaction with outcome and intention to take further action.
Results: After excluding non-medical complaints, 290 of 314 questionnaires returned were analysed, giving a response rate of 63% (314/500): 64% of complaints were about clinical care, and the remainder related to rudeness or poor communication (22%), and unethical or improper behaviour (14%); 70% of complainants were women, and 44% of complaints were on behalf of another person; Complainants had a high socioeconomic status, and 60% were currently in paid employment; More than half the incidents occurred in doctors' consulting rooms; 87% of the doctors involved were men, and over half were general practitioners. 37% of complaints were dismissed; 21% of complainants did not know the outcome of their complaint, and 40% believed that the doctor had been disciplined. Most complainants were dissatisfied with the outcome; a quarter stated that they would sue, but 70% would do nothing further. All but two complainants would never consult the doctor involved again.
Conclusions: Most of the respondents were not satisfied with either the process or the outcome. Typically they wanted stronger measures taken. Only a few wanted compensation; more wanted acknowledgement of harm done; and most wanted the doctor punished.