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Objective It is increasingly recognized that patient safety requires heterogeneous insights from a range of stakeholders, yet incident reporting systems in health care still primarily rely on staff perspectives. This paper examines the potential of combining insights from patient complaints and staff incident reports for a more comprehensive understanding of the causes and severity of harm. Methods Using five years of patient complaints and staff incident reporting data at a large multi-site hospital in London (in the United Kingdom), this study conducted retrospective patient-level data linkage to identify overlapping reports. Using a combination of quantitative coding and in-depth qualitative analysis, we then compared level of harm reported, identified descriptions of adjacent events missed by the other party and examined combined narratives of mutually identified events. Results Incidents where complaints and incident reports overlapped (n = 446, reported in 7.6%’ of all complaints and 0.6% of all incident reports) represented a small but critical area of investigation, with significantly higher rates of Serious Incidents and severe harm. Linked complaints described greater harm from safety incidents in 60% of cases, reported many surrounding safety events missed by staff (n = 582), and provided contesting stories of why problems occurred in 46% cases, and complementary accounts in 26% cases. Conclusions This study demonstrates the value of using patient complaints to supplement, test, and challenge staff reports, including to provide greater insight on the many potential factors that may give rise to unsafe care. Accordingly, we propose that a more holistic analysis of critical safety incidents can be achieved through combining heterogeneous data from different viewpoints, such as through the integration of patient complaints and staff incident reporting data.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Health Services Research & Policy


SAGE Publications

Publication Date





41 - 49