Article Text

The Healthcare Complaints Analysis Tool: development and reliability testing of a method for service monitoring and organisational learning
  1. Alex Gillespie,
  2. Tom W Reader
  1. Department of Social Psychology, London School of Economics, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Alex Gillespie, Department of Social Psychology, London School of Economics, London WC2A 2AE, UK; A.T.Gillespie{at}


Background Letters of complaint written by patients and their advocates reporting poor healthcare experiences represent an under-used data source. The lack of a method for extracting reliable data from these heterogeneous letters hinders their use for monitoring and learning. To address this gap, we report on the development and reliability testing of the Healthcare Complaints Analysis Tool (HCAT).

Methods HCAT was developed from a taxonomy of healthcare complaints reported in a previously published systematic review. It introduces the novel idea that complaints should be analysed in terms of severity. Recruiting three groups of educated lay participants (n=58, n=58, n=55), we refined the taxonomy through three iterations of discriminant content validity testing. We then supplemented this refined taxonomy with explicit coding procedures for seven problem categories (each with four levels of severity), stage of care and harm. These combined elements were further refined through iterative coding of a UK national sample of healthcare complaints (n= 25, n=80, n=137, n=839). To assess reliability and accuracy for the resultant tool, 14 educated lay participants coded a referent sample of 125 healthcare complaints.

Results The seven HCAT problem categories (quality, safety, environment, institutional processes, listening, communication, and respect and patient rights) were found to be conceptually distinct. On average, raters identified 1.94 problems (SD=0.26) per complaint letter. Coders exhibited substantial reliability in identifying problems at four levels of severity; moderate and substantial reliability in identifying stages of care (except for ‘discharge/transfer’ that was only fairly reliable) and substantial reliability in identifying overall harm.

Conclusions HCAT is not only the first reliable tool for coding complaints, it is the first tool to measure the severity of complaints. It facilitates service monitoring and organisational learning and it enables future research examining whether healthcare complaints are a leading indicator of poor service outcomes. HCAT is freely available to download and use.

  • Quality measurement
  • Patient safety
  • Communication
  • Ordinary knowledge
  • Patient-centred care

This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited and the use is non-commercial. See:

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  • Contributors AG and TR contributed equally to the conceptualisation, design, acquisition, analysis, interpretation and write up of the data. Both authors contributed equally to all aspects of developing the Healthcare Complaints Analysis Tool and writing the article. Both authors approve the submitted version of the article.

  • Funding London School of Economics and Political Science.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethics approval London School of Economics and Political Science Research Ethics Committee.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement The data from the discriminant content validity study and the reliability study are available. Please contact the authors for details.