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The Patients' Complaints System in New Zealand

The Issue

In 1996, New Zealand established a system through which patients can lodge complaints of perceived malpractice with an independent ombudsman, who then investigates and recommends changes in practice and/or disciplinary action, when needed. In addition to providing consumers with a means for quickly resolving complaints, the system is intended to promote health care quality improvement. In this Commonwealth Fund–supported article, Ron Paterson, the former ombudsman (known as the Health and Disability Commissioner), evaluates the effectiveness of the patients' complaints system.

What the Study Found

Complaints are resolved through direct discussions with the provider, with the commissioner serving as the patient's advocate, or through formal investigations. The commissioner then uses the investigations to educate providers and advocate on behalf of health care consumers, with the goal of encouraging systemwide improvements in quality and safety. Since 1996, the number of patient complaints has grown, but fewer medical practitioners have faced formal discipline, likely because the focus of the system is on the resolution of complaints. Surveys of consumers and providers show greater awareness of patients' rights.


According to Paterson, "the jury is still out on whether legislated patients' rights and complaints to an ombudsman will prove to be an effective tool for quality improvement in New Zealand, but here are some promising signs."

Publication Details

Publication Date: April 25, 2011
Summary Writer: Martha Hostetter
Citation: R. J. Paterson, "The Patients' Complaints System in New Zealand," Health Affairs, May 2002 21(3):70–79.