Citation McCreaddie M, Benwell B & Gritti A (2018) Traumatic journeys; understanding the rhetoric of patients' complaints. BMC Health Services Research, 18, Art. No.: 551. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12913-018-3339-8
Research on patients’ complaints about healthcare has tended to focus on the typology of complaints and complainants to homogenise complaints and better understand safety implications. Nonetheless, complaints speak to a broader spectrum of harm and suffering that go beyond formal adverse events. Complaints about care episodes can take considerable time and effort, generate negative energy and may leave a dogged ‘minority’ embittered.
This study provides an overview of the process and rhetoric of how patients formulate written complaints. We collated a data corpus comprising 60 letters of complaints and their responses over a period of one month. This paper focuses on the complaint letters only. National Health Service (NHS) Complaint Department staff in a healthcare area in the United Kingdom (UK) anonymized the letters. We took a broad qualitative approach to analysing the data drawing upon Discourse Analysis focusing on the rhetorical and persuasive strategies employed by the complainants.
What patients complained about related to how they complained, with complainants expending considerable effort in persuasive rhetoric that sought to legitimise the complaint drawing upon different sources of epistemic authority. The complainants struggle to be an ‘objective’ witness as the complaint evolves from an implicit neglect narrative to increasing ‘noise’ with other features such as Direct Reported Speech used to animate and authenticate the narrative.
Many of the complex complaints appeared to evidence some psychological distress. This was associated with the complainants’ reports of experiencing cumulative poor health care and their repeated failure to resolve the complaint. The subsequent delicate and potentially stigmatized formal act of complaining was a source of additional distress.
Complaints are involved narratives often predicated on the expectation they will not be given due credence. Health care staff may benefit from understanding how complaints are formulated to be able to more appropriately address the focus and extent of patients’ grievances from the outset and therefore, reduce the considerable associated harm.