Patient complaints about physician behaviors: a qualitative study

Acad Med. 2004 Feb;79(2):134-8. doi: 10.1097/00001888-200402000-00008.


Purpose: Health care institutions are required to routinely collect and address formal patient complaints. Despite the availability of this feedback, no published efforts explore such data to improve physician behavior. The authors sought to determine the usefulness of patient complaints by establishing meaningful categories and exploring their epidemiology.

Method: A register of formal, unsolicited patient complaints collected routinely at the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina was used to categorize complaints using qualitative research strategies. After eliminating complaints unrelated to physician behavior, complaints from March 1999 were analyzed (60) to identify complaint categories that were then validated using complaints from January 2000 (122). Subsequently, all 1,746 complaints for the year 2000 were examined. Those unrelated to physician behavior (1,342) and with inadequate detail (182) were excluded, leaving 222 complaints further analysis.

Results: Complaints were most commonly lodged by patient (111), followed by a patient's spouse (33), (52), parent (50), relative/friend (15), or health professional (2). The most commonly identified category was disrespect (36%), followed by disagreement about expectations of care (23%), inadequate information (20%), distrust (18%), perceived unavailability (15%), interdisciplinary miscommunication (4%), and misinformation (4%). Multiple categories were identified in (19%) complaints. Examples from each category provide adequate detail to develop instructional modules.

Conclusion: The seven complaint categories of physician behaviors should be useful in developing curricula related to professionalism, communication skills, practice-based learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence*
  • Humans
  • North Carolina
  • Patient Satisfaction* / statistics & numerical data
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Quality of Health Care
  • Registries
  • Trust