What Does it Mean to Complain?

Dr Jack B. Joyce; Dr Tom Douglass    23.4.21

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What does it mean to complain? At its most basic, a complaint is an expression of dissatisfaction against a person, situation or institution. In everyday life, this could mean objecting to something a friend has done or it could involve speaking out against a business or politician. For the Real Complaints project we are interested in complaints about medical mistakes or poor medical communication. Every complaint is different and requires a different response, but how do we know what the best response to a particular complaint is? The answer lies in studying how people actually make and respond to complaints. In this piece, we unpack complaining about healthcare drawing on sociological and communication research.

Why might someone complain about healthcare? Complaints are the first step toward receiving assistance and remedying the problem as they explicitly formulate what has gone wrong. In this sense, complaints can be a positive opportunity for healthcare providers to see their services through the eyes of patients, their carers or families and to take action as necessary to prevent the types of events or chain of circumstances that led to instances of poor care. Research suggests that there is no single motivation for complaining. A patient, their carer, or family may desire an apology for what they have experienced - be that, for example, medical error or poor communication. It could be that a response to a question is what is sought, to request that a procedure is done more quickly or a diagnostic or treatment decision changed. Often it is because complainants do not want others to experience the same issue with the delivery of care or poor instances of communication (e.g. with medical professionals) that they have experienced. Occasionally complainants want compensation or for a responsible party to be punished.

Complaints are a part of our everyday lives, and although popular advice advocates for “complaining less to live a happier life!” that is not always, if ever, the case. We complain to build our relationships, we complain to get things done, and we complain to share our experiences and perspectives with other people. By complaining we tell people how we see the world and invite them to see it that way too. Complaining can (and does) make the word a better place.