How to write a complaint letter

One of the doulas on My OB Said WHAT?! asked me to draft a template letter showing people how to write a complaint to a hospital or doctor, and after I posted it there, another doula asked me to post it somewhere permanent.

When you’re writing to complain, the key is to be absolutely clear about what went wrong and just as clear about the steps you want taken to correct the problem. A lot of times when we’re complaining, we get emotionally charged, and while that has its place, I think in a written letter it’s better to err on the side of factual than emotional. In other words, “You wrecked my birth!” is going to get less response from a hospital administrator than “Dr. Smith violated my right to informed refusal” or “Nurse Smith gave substandard care because I’m on Medicaid.”

This template is an organizational tool: nothing more. You plug in your information and you go from there. You can omit parts or add others. It’s designed for medical complaints, but you can use it for anything at all, and you can use it to express gratitude as well. It’s just as easy to write “Ms. Smith was a tremendous help in getting my flood insurance straightened out” as it is “Dr. Smith violated my civil rights,” and compliment letters are more often noticed because they’re a lot rarer.

Business letter format is best. Try to keep it on one page. Use a paper letter rather than email if possible. Type it. Save a copy for yourself. Remember that the first person who resorts to name-calling or profanity will lose the argument. And here we go:

your address
your city/state/zip
your phone number
today’s date

doctor’s name
doctor’s practice name
doctor’s address
doctor’s city/state/zip

Dear Dr. Name:

I am writing concerning my treatment on {date} when I was {worst offense or the main point of the letter. This is the most important part because you need to be quick and clean: “When I was denied adequate care because of my weight.” “When Dr. Knife violated the Patient Bill of Rights by cutting an episiotomy even though I was yelling at the time that I did not consent.” “When Dr. Obfuscate lied to me about my baby’s condition in order to coerce compliance with an unnecessary and expensive medical procedure.”}

{Brief mention of circumstances surrounding the incident. Keep this to about two sentences, maybe three. Hospital administrators want to see plenty of white space on the page.}

{Here mention the incident, and while recounting it:

  • use bullet points
  • use unemotional language
  • document any exact quotes
  • mention who else may have witnessed the incident.}

This is unacceptable because {it violates the law / it’s a violation of my civil rights / it’s not standard of care / such and such organization recommends against it / the Patient Bill Of Rights specifically forbids it / Federal Law requires you to do the opposite.} Moreover, {this is how it affected my medical situation and made things worse. Note that if you’re going to be emotional, this is the place to do it. “I no longer trust any of the nurses who work at your hospital.” “I am outraged by the unconcern of the emergency room staff in Blank Hospital.” “I am heartsick at the disrespect shown to my wife during her miscarriage.”}

Because of this incident, {here you can mention any action you plan to take, if applicable. Or any corrective action you did have to take.}

In the future, I expect {and here you can name whatever you expect to be done to make it right. If there’s more than one thing, again I recommend bullet points.}

  • Doctor Whatever to issue an apology for {specific action.}
  • The practice / maternity unit to adopt a written policy of {whatever is the opposite of what the doctor did}

Please respond to this letter to let me know what action will be taken.

Sincerely,

{space for your signature, followed by}

Name

CC: The manager of the doctor’s practice, possibly among others the hospital ombudsman, the hospital management, the state licensing board, or even your insurance company. For major violations you may also consider reporting the doctor/hospital to the Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals. You can contact them directly at complaint@jointcommission.org.

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About philangelus

Mom, freelance writer, novelist, angelphile, Catholic, know-it-all.
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8 Responses to How to write a complaint letter

  1. Kate says:

    You rock.

    Have you ever considered writing a book of form letters, or a book about writing through difficult interpersonal issues? That’s not the sort of thing that is published as often as it used to be (once there were myriads of etiquette and correspondance guides), but I think you have an amazing talent for it. I’d buy it!

  2. diinzumo says:

    This is great, and I plan to bookmark it for future use. I have written only one complaint letter in my life (to Northwest Airlines after a horrific international flight) and one compliment letter that was taken as a complaint (to the unfortunately now-defunct Song Airlines). I hope and pray that I will never have to write a complaint letter to a medical doctor for any reason.

  3. Belinda says:

    Gold. This would be a fantastic starting point for so many people… I know women who’ve taken years to truly process their births… for those who want to send a complaint but can’t begin, this is perfect.

    Philangelus, may I repost this on a forum I’m a mbr of in Australia? The system’s different but the key points of your letter are the same. The forum is Joyous Birth, could you possibly post here if it’s OK for me to repost this with your link?

    • philangelus says:

      Absolutely, Belinda — the blog is public so go ahead and propagate it.

      The problem with complaint letters is that very often we want to include all the ways we’ve been hurt, and that makes it easier for the medical personnel to dismiss us as hormonal or not understanding what we truly needed. That’s why I stress bullet-points and a clear directive. I’ve found with myself that the bullet-points/directive help because they force me to boil down whatever they did to me into its very core.

      Until you can crystalize exactly how you were harmed, it’s very hard to heal from it.

      I’m glad you found the template helpful.

  4. Sheva says:

    I’m using it right now. Question: Is an episiotomy done in the face of the mother’s explicit refusal grounds for going to the State Licensing Board and/or Joint Commissions, or is that a little over the top?

  5. daniellesgraphics says:

    Thank you for posting this. I am unfortunately faced with sending a complaint to our pediatrician. She has on more than kne occasion brushed off my concerns or ignored what I was saying and made diagnoses based on incorrect information because she ignored what I was telling her… i always thought it was just our personalities clashing but found out she has been treating other people like this as well. And my daughter suffered from a baterial rash the last 6 months because she wrote it off as eczema although I specifically told her of my experience with eczema and how I didn’t think it was that. Then months latwr I brought my daughter back to her with the rash and she diagnosed it as scabies which also did not make since because none of the rest of us had caught it but when I questioned her she basically blew up at me and was very rude and didnt even offer to ger another dr in the practice to look at it for a second opinion just said if I wanted to she could write me a referral. She literally told asked me with a horrible tone of voice WHAT WOULD YOU WANT ME TO DO THEN? Like how dare I question her. Anyway I went into that more than I meant to. I a really glad to see this and to have spent the tome online looking up a lway to do this formally that will have the most impact. I will not continue to take my children to her, I will be taking them to a different doctor in the office.
    My question for you would be who do you think I should send this to? I was going to send it snail mail. Should I send two letters one for the doctor and one for the practice manager? Honestly I don’t even want to send one to the doctor.

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