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BMJ Qual Saf 22:521-524 doi:10.1136/bmjqs-2013-001880
  • Editorial

Physicians with multiple patient complaints: ending our silence

  1. Wendy Levinson2
  1. 1Department of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA
  2. 2Department of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Thomas H Gallagher, Department of Medicine, University of Washington, 4311-11th Ave NE, Suite 230; Seattle, WA 98015, USA; thomasg{at}uw.edu
  • Received 4 February 2013
  • Accepted 4 February 2013
  • Published Online First 10 April 2013

Patients are generally pleased with their personal physicians and appreciate positive relationships with them. In the recent Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey of patients in nearly 4000 US hospitals, 81% of patients gave the highest marks possible to their communication with their physicians.1 Yet some physicians struggle to interact effectively with patients.

The majority of problematic patient–provider interactions go unnoticed, except by the patient. The physicians do not receive feedback and may be unaware that their patients are dissatisfied. Sometimes patients who have had a poor interaction with their physician file a complaint, either with the healthcare institution or with a regulator such as a state Board of Medicine. Prior research, along with the study by Bismark and colleagues in this issue,2 highlight how a small number of physicians are responsible for the majority of patient complaints.3 Similar findings have been demonstrated previously for other markers of problematic patient–provider interactions such as malpractice claims, when a small minority of physicians are responsible for the majority of lawsuits.4 ,5 Given the fact that many patients who are unhappy with the communication with their physicians hesitate to complain, the current data on the prevalence of patient complaints represent the tip of the iceberg.6

Some organisations are systematically examining patient complaints to understand and improve providers’ communication skills and patient satisfaction.3 Furthermore, patient complaints are associated with other measures of gaps in quality of care.7 However, historically the medical profession has not taken patient complaints especially seriously. Multiple formal patient complaints or allegations of egregious behaviour about an individual physician are often required before regulators investigate.

The rigorous study by Bismark and colleagues documents just how pervasive and concerning the problem of physicians with recurrent patient complaints is.2 Three …