Do neurosurgeons receive more patient complaints than other physicians? Describing who is most at risk and how we can improve

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  • 1 Department of Neurological Surgery,
  • 2 Vanderbilt University School of Medicine,
  • 3 Department of Biostatistics,
  • 4 Center for Patient and Professional Advocacy, and
  • 5 Department of Pediatrics, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee
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OBJECTIVE

The number of unsolicited patient complaints (UPCs) about surgeons correlates with surgical complications and malpractice claims. Using a large, national patient complaint database, the authors sought to do the following: 1) compare the rates of UPCs for neurosurgeons to those for other physicians, 2) analyze the risk of UPCs with individual neurosurgeon characteristics, and 3) describe the types of UPCs made about neurosurgeons.

METHODS

Patient and family complaint reports among 36,265 physicians, including 423 neurosurgeons, 8292 other surgeons, and 27,550 nonsurgeons who practiced at 33 medical centers (22 academic and 11 regional) from January 1, 2014, to December 31, 2017, were coded with a previously validated Patient Advocacy Reporting System (PARS) algorithm.

RESULTS

Among 423 neurosurgeons, 93% were male, and most (71%) practiced in academic medical centers. Neurosurgical subspecialties included general practice (25%), spine (25%), tumor (16%), vascular (13%), functional (10%), and pediatrics (10%). Neurosurgeons had more average total UPCs per physician (8.68; 95% CI 7.68–9.67) than nonsurgeons (3.40; 95% CI 3.33–3.47) and other surgeons (5.01; 95% CI 4.85–5.17; p < 0.001). In addition, a significantly higher percentage of neurosurgeons received at least one UPC (71.6%; 95% CI 67.3%–75.9%) than did nonsurgeons (50.2%; 95% CI 49.6%–50.8%) and other surgeons (58.2%; 95% CI 57.1%–59.3%; p < 0.001). Factors most associated with increased average UPCs were younger age, measured as median medical school graduation year (1990.5 in the 0-UPC group vs 1993 in the 14+-UPC group, p = 0.009) and spine subspecialty (13.4 mean UPCs in spine vs 7.9 mean UPCs in other specialties, 95% CI 2.3–8.5, p < 0.001). No difference in complaints was seen in those who graduated from non-US versus US medical schools (p = 0.605). The most common complaint types were related to issues surrounding care and treatment, communication, and accessibility, each of which was significantly more common for neurosurgeons than other surgical specialties (p < 0.001).

CONCLUSIONS

Neurosurgeons were more likely to generate UPCs than other surgical specialties, and almost 3 out of 4 neurosurgeons (71.6%) had at least one UPC during the study period. Prior studies have shown that feedback to physicians about behavior can result in fewer UPCs. These results suggest that neurosurgeons have opportunities to reduce complaints and potentially improve the overall quality of care delivered.

ABBREVIATIONS CORS = Co-worker Observation Reporting System; CPPA = Vanderbilt Center for Patient and Professional Advocacy; PARS = Patient Advocacy Reporting System; UPC = unsolicited patient complaint.

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Contributor Notes

Correspondence Scott L. Zuckerman: Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN. zuckerman.scott@gmail.com.

INCLUDE WHEN CITING Published online July 31, 2020; DOI: 10.3171/2020.4.JNS20870.

R.J.D. and S.L.Z. contributed equally to this work.

Disclosures The authors report no conflict of interest concerning the materials or methods used in this study or the findings specified in this paper.

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