Recent media reports have highlighted the risks to patients that may occur when practitioners in the chiropractic, osteopathy and physiotherapy professions provide services in an unethical or unsafe manner. Yet research on complaints about chiropractors, osteopaths, and physiotherapists is limited. Our aim was to understand differences in the frequency and nature of formal complaints about 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 complaint 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.
Our 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.