Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland
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A qualitative study of National Health Service (NHS) complaint-responses

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journal contribution
posted on 2021-12-16, 14:52 authored by May McCreaddie, Bethan Benwell, Alice Gritti

Background: Healthcare complaints are grievances that may be indicative of some system failures, individual failings, or a combination of both. Moreover, the experience of making a complaint, including its outcome, often falls short of patient expectations, particularly in relation to the interpersonal conduct of National Health Service (NHS) staff. Over half of unresolved (local) complaints are subsequently upheld by the ombudsman with others potentially resulting in costly litigation.

Method: A nuanced discourse analytical approach to analysing the language choices within complaint-responses could potentially provide greater insight into why many local complaints continue to remain unresolved. Over a period of 1 month we collated a data corpus of written complaints and their responses (n = 60) from an NHS healthcare area in Scotland, United Kingdom (UK) following anonymisation by NHS complaint handling staff. We took a qualitative approach to analysing the data drawing upon Discourse Analysis with this paper reporting on the complaint-responses only (n = 59). We had undertaken a similar review of the initial written complaints and this is reported elsewhere. In this paper we examine how, and to what extent, the complaint-responses fully addressed the complainants' perceived grievances.

Results: The complaint-responses rarely acknowledged the amount of detail or 'work' involved in making the complaint. Complaint-responses constructed complainants' accounts as subjective by using specific discourse strategies. Further, complaint responses used unintentionality or exceptionality to mitigate sub-standard experiences of care. We also observed the 'fauxpology' - a non-apology or false apology (e.g. I am sorry you feel) which imputes the cause of distress to the subjective (and possibly misguided) impressions of the complainant. The complaint-responses thereby evade blame or responsibility for the complainable action by implying that the complainants' feelings do not align with the facts.

Conclusions: Complainants and complaint-responders work to different frames of reference. Complaint responders need to engage and align with complainants from the outset to ensure more appropriate complaint- responses. Complaint resolution as opposed to complaint handling could be enhanced by the approach of linguistic analysis and reference to the consumer literature's justice-based approach to post-complaint behaviour.



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Published Citation

McCreaddie M, Benwell B, Gritti A. A qualitative study of National Health Service (NHS) complaint-responses. BMC Health Serv Res. 2021;21(1):696

Publication Date

15 July 2021

PubMed ID



  • RCSI Bahrain


BioMed Central


  • Published Version (Version of Record)