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Complaint handling in healthcare: expectation gaps between physicians and the public. Results of a survey study.

Friele, R.D., Reitsma, P.M., Jong, J.D. de. Complaint handling in healthcare: expectation gaps between physicians and the public. Results of a survey study. BMC Research Notes: 2015, 8(529)
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Patients who submit complaints about the healthcare they have received are often dissatisfied with the response to their complaints. This is usually attributed to the failure of physicians to respond adequately to what complainants want, e.g. an apology or an explanation. However, expectations of complaint handling among the public may colour how they evaluate the way their own complaint is handled. This descriptive study assesses expectations of complaint handling in healthcare among the public and physicians. Negative public expectations and the gap between these expectations and those of physicians may explain patients’ dissatisfaction with complaints procedures.

We held two surveys; one among physicians, using a panel of 3366 physicians (response rate 57 %, containing all kinds of physicians like GP’s, medical specialist and physicians working in a nursing home) and one among the public, using the Dutch Healthcare Consumer Panel (n = 1422, response rate 68 %). We asked both panels identical questions about their expectations of how complaints are handled in healthcare. Differences in expectation scores between the public and the physicians were tested using non-parametric tests.

The public have negative expectations about how complaints are handled. Physician’s expectations are far more positive, demonstrating large expectation gaps between physicians and the public.

The large expectation gap between the public and physicians means that when they meet because of complaint, they are likely to start off with opposite expectations of the situation. This is no favourable condition for a positive outcome of a complaints procedure. The negative public preconceptions about the way their complaint will be handled will prove hard to change during the process of complaints handling. People tend to see what they thought would happen, almost inevitably leading to a negative judgement about how their complaint was handled. (aut. ref.)