Patients remain an underused resource in efforts to improve quality and safety in healthcare, despite evidence that they can provide valuable insights into the care they receive. This study aimed to establish whether high-level patient safety incidents (HLIs) were predictable from preceding complaints, enabling complaints to be used to prevent HLIs. For this study complaints received from November 2011 through June 2012 and HLI incident reports from April through September 2012 were examined. Complaints and HLIs were categorised according to location or specialty and the themes they included. Data were analysed to look for correlations between number of complaints and HLIs in a given area. A qualitative analysis was carried out to determine whether any complaints contained information that, if acted upon earlier, could have prevented later HLIs. In the data a total of 52 complaints and 16 HLIs were included. No correlation was established between location of HLIs and complaints. Complaints commonly focused on staff attitude, diagnostic problems and delayed treatment. HLIs most often arose from failure to recognise a patient’s deterioration and escalate appropriately or incorrect patient identification. Most HLIs were not preceded by similar complaints. However, in two instances complaints did signpost future HLIs. Patient complaints can highlight specific risks to patient safety and act as an early warning system. There is a need to devise reliable means of identifying the minority of complaints that do precede serious incidents.

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