Complaints in healthcare – a useful source of information for change

Lead researcher: Professor Paul O’Connor, University of Galway

The problem:

Each year more than 12,000 healthcare complaints are recorded in Ireland, but there is no process to analyse this body of information at a system level and use the findings to improve healthcare.


The project:

A team led by University of Galway used the Healthcare Complaints Analysis Tool (HCAT) to examine more than 600 healthcare complaints made in Ireland, and worked with researchers, healthcare workers, Health Service Executive (HSE) managers and patients to identify solutions.


The outcomes:

  • This was the first national and systematic study of healthcare complaints in Ireland, and it showed the HCAT is a useful tool for categorising and prioritising complaints.
  • The analysis showed that complaints about healthcare institutions and their processes were the most common.
  • The study identified ‘hotspots’, where harm is more likely, during the patient journey through examination, care and treatment.
  • The research found ‘blind spots’, often at transitions such as admission and discharge, where healthcare staff may not notice problems.
  • Workshops with patients and healthcare staff that explored specific complaints were a useful way of generating awareness and solutions.

HCAT has now been adapted by the team for use in primary care settings.

Professor Paul O’Connor, a Personal Professor in the Discipline of General Practice, University of Galway, says:

“Complaints are a rich source of information about the problems that patients experience in healthcare, but there is no process for hospitals or the healthcare service in Ireland to use that information systemically to make broad improvements to healthcare delivery. This limits the ability of patients to contribute to identifying problems and potential solutions. We were able to show that the Healthcare Complaints Analysis Tool offers a standardised way to categorise and constructively use the information from complaints made by patients.”

Chris Rutland, Assistant National Director, National Complaints Governance and Learning, says:

“The data from this study can transform how the HSE analyses and learns from patient complaints.”

HCAT – What is it?

HCAT is a method to analyse complaints in a systematic way. The free, online tool was developed at the London School of Economics, and it allows users to organise, analyse and present insights from issues raised by patients.

Complaints in healthcare – a useful source of information for change is part of a wider collection of success stories across four themes from this year's annual Health Research in Action.

Download the full Health Research in Action publication (549 kB).

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