A small minority of doctors are responsible for most complaints

Three percent of doctors account for 50% of Australian patient complaints, according to a study

published by BMJ Safety and Quality.

The finding is based on an analysis of a national sample of all 18,907 formal patient complaints

filed with health service ombudsman (‘Commissions’) against 11,148 individual doctors in

Australia over 11 years.

The researchers report that the number of prior complaints doctors had experienced is a

particularly strong predictor of their short-term risk of further complaints.

They say it is also possible to identify which doctors are most at risk of a repeat complaint.

“At the practitioner level, short-term risks of recurrence varied widely, from &% risk among

low-risk doctors to & risk among high-risk doctors,” report the researchers, who also note

that there is a high risk of recurrence within two years (> 60%) among doctors with “as few as

four” complaints.


They say their study differs from previous assessments of claims and complaints risk, which

have tended to focus on pools of doctors covered by a single medical indemnity insurance

provider or a few hospitals. They report that fewer than 500 doctors accounted for 25% of all complaints over the 11-year


medical indemnity insurance


“Immediate steps to improve, guide or constrain the care being provided by these ‘high-risk’

practitioners could be a very cost-effective way to advance quality and safety, and produce

measurable benefits at the system level.”


The number of complaints per medical specialty was broadly proportional to the number of

practicing specialists, they report.

Just under half of the complaints involved GPs and 14% involved surgeons.

In total, 432 orthopaedic surgeons, 398 general surgeons and 177 plastic surgeons were named

in the complaints.


There were 1243 complaints involving internal medicine physicians, 672 involving psychiatrists,

541 involving obstetrics and gynaecology, 404 involving anaesthetists, 243 involving

ophthalmologists and 147 involving dermatologists. Almost 80% of the complaints were against male doctors. 


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