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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Complaints handling in hospitals: an empirical study of discrepancies between patients' expectations and their experiences

Roland D Friele13*, Emmy M Sluijs1 and Johan Legemaate2

Author Affiliations

1 NIVEL, Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research, PO Box 1568, 3500 BN Utrecht, the Netherlands

2 VU University Medical Centre Amsterdam, EMGO Institute, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

3 Tranzo, Tilburg University, Tilburg, The Netherlands

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BMC Health Services Research 2008, 8:199  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-8-199

Published: 30 September 2008



Many patients are dissatisfied with the way in which their complaints about health care are dealt with. This study tested the assumption that this dissatisfaction consists – in part at least – of unmet expectations.


Subjects were 279 patients who lodged a complaint with the complaints committees of 74 hospitals in the Netherlands. They completed two questionnaires; one on their expectations at the start of the complaints handling process, and one on their experiences after the complaints procedure (pre-post design; response 50%). Dependent variables are patients' satisfaction and their feeling that justice was done; independent variables are the association between patients' expectations and their experiences.


Only 31% of the patients felt they had received justice from the complaints process.

Two thirds of the patients were satisfied with the conduct of the complaints committee, but fewer were satisfied with the conduct of the hospital or the medical professional (29% and 18%). Large discrepancies between expectations and experiences were found in the case of doctors not admitting errors when errors had been made, and of hospital managements not providing information on corrective measures that were taken. Discrepancies collectively explained 51% of patients' dissatisfaction with the committee and one third of patients' dissatisfaction with the hospital and the professional. The feeling that justice was done was influenced by the decision on the complaint (well-founded or not), but also by the satisfaction with the conduct of the committee, the hospital management and the professional involved.


It is disappointing to observe that less than one third of the patients felt that justice had been done through the complaints handling process. This study shows that the feeling that justice had been done is not only influenced by the judgement of the complaints committee, but also by the response of the professional. Furthermore, hospitals and professionals should communicate on how they are going to prevent a recurrence of the events that led to the complaint.