The Right to Complain

I had an interesting conversation with someone the other day about the “right” to complain. Here was the scenario: They bought something online and it took 3 weeks longer than expected to arrive. The product was fine, no issues there, but they had to wait a total of 5 weeks for it arrive. My friend didn’t want to complain to the retailer because “With everything else going on in the world, I don’t think I have the right to complain about the delivery of this non-essential item.”

Even though this wasn’t a healthcare context, my friend’s comment got me thinking about patients and how many of them must feel the same about the care they receive – especially during the pandemic. I can totally see a patient thinking: “I really shouldn’t complain they got my dinner order wrong because they are so busy” or “It took the team 5 hours to discharge me from the hospital but they are so busy with COVID patients”

Honestly, I completely understand the feeling.

Even without the pandemic, I’m not sure I would complain about the food I received, unless I was allergic to it. I’d simply eat it and move on. Knowing what I do about the pressure nurses are under and how everyone is burned out (again not because of COVID), I don’t think I would have made my dinner an issue.

Some would say that if you don’t say something then the problem will be perpetuated. That’s true, but at the same time, I think many patients empathize with the situation healthcare staff find themselves in. After all, it’s not the person who delivered your food’s fault it’s not the right meal. It’s not the nurses’ fault either. You get where I’m going with this.

For minor issues, I think many will feel that they don’t have the “right” to complain…kind of like how we say certain problems are “first world” problems. I’m getting great care while so many others can’t afford it or don’t have access to it, so why should I complain about something as small as the food or the temperature of my room?

While that may be true, keeping the negative feelings inside can be harmful. According to this fantastic New York Times article:

Even though it may come naturally, griping isn’t necessarily always a good thing. Ruminating on negative feelings, and reinforcing them through constant discussion with other people, can lead to catastrophizing, which “is something that can contribute to depression,” said Margot Bastin, who studies communication between friends at the department of School Psychology and Development in Context at the Belgian university KU Leuven.

Negatively obsessing over something isn’t healthy, but Dr. Kowalski said that “expressive complaining” — blowing off steam — and “instrumental complaining” — which is done with an actionable goal — can both be beneficial. Venting can help us gain perspective and put words to our feelings, Dr. Grice said. When done effectively, it can even help you clearly realize what, specifically, about a situation is bothering you.

What I find most interesting is the statement about “instrumental complaining” – that is complaining with a specific actionable goal in mind. I have often heard that this the best way to make a complaint: to be specific about what went wrong and what you would like the remedy to be.

So how do you complain in a way that gets results? According to Danielle Page, here is what works:

  • Focus on feelings not facts
  • Talk through what’s frustrating you
  • Stick your complaint between two positives
  • Lead with how you feel

Join the #hcldr community on Tuesday June 16th at 8:30pm ET (for your local time click here) when we will be discussing the following:

  • T1 Have you ever kept a complaint bottled up because you felt you didn’t have the “right” to complain? Why did you feel that way?
  • T2 Have you ever made a formal complaint or provided constructive feedback in healthcare? Do you feel your feedback was acted upon?
  • T3 What advice would you give to a patient who has a complaint. Follow the formal process? Bring it up directly with the care team? Wait until the post-visit survey?
  • T4 What can healthcare leaders do to create an environment where people who have complaints are as comfortable voicing it as those who are receiving it?


Page, Danielle. “How to complain constructively (and get results)”, NBC News, 25 May 2017,, accessed 14 June 2021

Higgs, Micaela Marini. “Go Ahead and Complain. It Might Be Good for You”, New York Times, 6 January 2020,, accessed 15 June 2021

“How to Complain and Get Heard”, AHRQ,, accessed 14 June 2021

Somin, Ilya. “If you don’t vote, you still have every right to complain”, The Washington Post, 30 October 2014,, accessed 15 June 2021

Selig, Meg. “The 9 Habits of Highly Effective Complainers”, Psychology Today, 16 March 2012,, accessed 15 June 2021

Reader, Tom W et al. “Patient complaints in healthcare systems: a systematic review and coding taxonomy”, BMJ Quality & Safety, 29 May 2014,, accessed 15 June 2021

Image Credit

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: