Australian researchers say a small number of doctors are responsible for the majority of complaints, and they believe the problem is unlikely to be confined to Australia.
The new findings, published in the journal BMJ Quality & Safety, are based on a national sample of almost 19,000 formal patient complaints filed against 11,148 doctors with the health service ombudsmen between 2000 and 2011.
Over 60 percent of the complaints concerned clinical aspects of care, while 23 percent concerned communication issues, including the doctor's attitude and the quality of information provided. Most (79 percent) of the doctors involved in the complaints were men.
Male gender, older age, and working in surgical specialties were all associated with a higher risk of repeat complaints. But the number of previous complaints was the strongest predictor.
The researchers say that the approach they used to predict complaint risk could be used to spot problem doctors earlier, so improving the quality and safety of patient care.
Legal commentator Ron Paterson, of the Faculty of Law at the University of Auckland, added that three or more complaints about a doctor should become a matter of public record. "The current veil of secrecy over most complaints [which avoid publicity by never reaching the stage of disciplinary proceedings] allows repeat offenders to continue unheeded," he argues.
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Source: British Medical Journal