Systematic research on complaints about chiropractors, osteopaths, and physiotherapists is rare. We have often heard chiropractors claim that complaints against them are extremely rare events.
But is this true?
Two recent investigations might go some way towards answering this question.
The aim of the first investigation was to understand differences in the frequency and nature of formal complaints about Australian practitioners in these professions in order to inform improvements in professional regulation and education.
This retrospective cohort study analysed all formal complaints about all registered chiropractors, osteopaths, and physiotherapists in Australia lodged with health regulators between 2011 and 2016. Based on initial assessments by regulators, complaints were classified into 11 issues across three domains: performance, professional conduct, and health. Differences in complaint rate were assessed using incidence rate ratios. A multivariate negative binomial regression model was used to identify predictors of complaints among practitioners in these professions.
Patients and their relatives were the most common source of complaints about chiropractors, osteopaths and physiotherapists. Concerns about professional conduct accounted for more than half of the complaints about practitioners in these three professions. Regulatory outcome of complaints differed by profession. Male practitioners, those who were older than 65 years, and those who practised in metropolitan areas were at higher risk of complaint. The overall rate of complaints was higher for chiropractors than osteopaths and physiotherapists (29 vs. 10 vs. 5 complaints per 1000 practice years respectively, p < 0.001). Among chiropractors, 1% of practitioners received more than one complaint – they accounted for 36% of the complaints within their profession. Overall, nearly half of the complaints (47.7%) involved chiropractors, even though chiropractors make up less than one-sixth (13.9%) of the workforce across these three professions.
The authors concluded that their study demonstrates differences in the frequency of complaints by source, issue and outcome across the chiropractic, osteopathic and physiotherapy professions. Independent of profession, male sex and older age were significant risk factors for complaint in these professions. Chiropractors were at higher risk of being the subject of a complaint to their practitioner board compared with osteopaths and physiotherapists. These findings may assist regulatory boards, professional associations and universities in developing programs that avert patient dissatisfaction and harm and reduce the burden of complaints on practitioners.
The aim of the second study was to describe claims reported to the Danish Patient Compensation Association and the Norwegian System of Compensation to Patients related to chiropractic from 2004 to 2012.
All finalized compensation claims involving chiropractors reported to one of the two associations between 2004 and 2012 were assessed for age, gender, type of complaint, decisions and appeals. Descriptive statistics were used to describe the study population. The results show that 338 claims were registered in Denmark and Norway between 2004 and 2012 of which 300 were included in the analysis. 41 (13.7%) were approved for financial compensation. The most frequent complaints were worsening of symptoms following treatment (n = 91, 30.3%), alleged disk herniations (n = 57, 19%) and cases with delayed referral (n = 46, 15.3%). A total financial payment of €2,305,757 (median payment €7,730) were distributed among the forty-one cases with complaints relating to a few cases of cervical artery dissection (n = 11, 5.7%) accounting for 88.7% of the total amount.
The authors concluded that chiropractors in Denmark and Norway received approximately one compensation claim per 100.000 consultations. The approval rate was low across the majority of complaint categories and lower than the approval rates for general practioners and physiotherapists. Many claims can probably be prevented if chiropractors would prioritize informing patients about the normal course of their complaint and normal benign reactions to treatment.
In their discussion section the authors make the following comments: A particular concern after cervical SMT is dissection of the vertebral and carotid arteries. Seventeen claims concerning CAD were reported in this data, 14 in Denmark and three in Norway, and 11 of these were approved for financial compensation (64.7% approval rate) representing by far the highest approval rate across all complaint categories… chiropractors generally seem to receive more claims per consultation than GPs and physiotherapists, the approval rate is substantially lower and a similar trend is observed in Norway. However, it is also evident that approved claims within chiropractic bear a higher financial burden than their peers. These numbers are clearly highly influenced by the cases related to CAD. Several reasons might explain a higher complaint rate within chiropractic but this remains speculation and we do not have hard evidence supporting any of the following suggestions: (1) chiropractic treatment might be perceived as more aggressive than that of GPs and physiotherapists (2) maybe scepticism towards chiropractic among medical physicians and physiotherapists could encourage more patient complaints (3) a higher out-of-pocket expense for chiropractic services compared with GP and physiotherapist services might influence the higher number of complaints (4) chiropractors do not adequately inform patients about normal side effects and reactions and patients regard these as serious and relevant for compensation claims (5) chiropractors encourage patients to report AE more frequently than GPs and physiotherapists.
So, are complaints against chiropractors rarities?
I don’t think so.