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04/11/2013

In Australia, a few bad doctors get half of all patient complaints

Are you an Australian who has filed a complaint about one of your doctors? Chances are many other patients have had problems with that exact same physician.

In Australia, a small number of "frequent flier" doctors are getting the lion's share of complaints from dissatisfied patients, according to a new study. Published in British Medical Journal Quality and Safety, the study looked at 18,907 patient complaints in Australia between 2000 and 2011.

During this time, there were 11,148 practising doctors — and 49 per cent of all complaints were about only three per cent of them.

Drilling down even further, only one per cent of doctors represented 25 per cent of total complaints. 

"No one with a passing familiarity with the world of patient complaints will be surprised by the fact there is a group of 'frequent flier' doctors who attract a disproportionate share of complaints," Ron Paterson, a professor of health law and policy at the University of Auckland, wrote in an accompanying editorial"What is surprising is the extent of the problem."

"A small minority of doctors accounts for around half of all complaints to official agencies. This is an albatross around the neck of the Australian medico-legal system — and a problem likely to be replicated in other countries."

The study's authors write that their findings highlight the "pressing need for interventions" to address the behaviour of problem doctors. Their research also points out the reality that remediation for doctors who are chronically complained about comes too little, too late.

Unsurprisingly, doctors who received prior complaints were far more likely to trigger future complaints, the study found. Doctors named in a third complaint had a 38 per cent chance of triggering another one by the end of the year and a 57 per cent chance of being the subject of complaint in the next two years.

And for doctors who have already received ten complaints or more? They had a staggering 97 per cent chance of being complained about again by the end of the same year.

Some more numbers from the study:

* 61 per cent of all complaints were about clinical care

* 23 per cent of all complaints were about communication issues

* 70 per cent of doctors who received complaints were men

* 53 per cent of doctors who received complaints were between the ages of 36 and 55

Note: the above post has been corrected. I had previously written that 111 doctors received a quarter of all patient complaints but one of the study authors has pointed out to me that this is a miscalculation and therefore too low an estimate.

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar


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