How to Make a Complaint about
Hospital Care in British Columbia

If you found this blog, it’s likely that you’re very upset right now.  No one looks for this information until something has gone very wrong with the healthcare that you or a loved one is receiving.

As the general public, and as professional navigator/advocates, we would love to believe that every healthcare provider is doing their best work, with the best in mind for their patients, all of the time.  Unfortunately, it’s just not reality.  There are a lot of people in healthcare positions (from care aides to doctors) who are burnt out and overworked or not suited to the work they have taken on.  Most unfortunately, there are some who are minor bullies to the extreme of those who derive pleasure from inflicting pain and suffering on the most vulnerable.  The more strapped for workers a health authority is, the more likely it is that those who should not be working in healthcare will slip through the cracks of the interview and reference process.

I wish that I had not been involved in horrendous cases of abuse and neglect—both as an RN and as a patient advocate—but I have.  People also regularly send me blood-curdling videos of abuse in care settings that leave me crying.  It makes my blood boil and I am beyond astounded that anyone can take part or ignore such behaviour.

But, it’s the smaller, more insidious problems that go completely under the radar (preventable infections, medication errors) that cause the most harm and even death.  As a patient or loved one to a patient it is your moral responsibility to stand up for safe and compassionate healthcare.  The process starts with you.   The more often people report poor to abusive care, the more hospitals and governments will take action.

Let us know if we can help you take these steps.

Take a deep breath, dig out a notebook and a pen and let’s begin.

There is a very specific order in which to make a complaint regarding care within a hospital or long term care facility in British Columbia.  Not following these steps will delay action being taken.  Here are some basic guidelines.

First and foremost, whenever possible, initiate these steps as logically as possible.  Try to take the emotion out of your complaint (which can be very difficult when something dangerous or life-threatening has happened to you or your loved one at the hand of a hospital caregiver).

Take the time to take notes with the classic W5 reporting technique:

  1. Who: Who was the patient and Who was the healthcare provider?
  2. What: What happened? Try and give as many details as possible.  What did you or your loved one do?  Was it reported immediately?  What was the outcome when it was reported?
  3. Where: Name of the hospital, unit, room, location in room (ex., bathroom)
  4. When: As close to an exact time as possible.
  5. Why: What might have led to this event? (Example, state of mind of the patient, state of mind of the healthcare provider, how busy was the unit, was it understaffed?)

Write down anything and everything that was said and done that will jog your mind later.  These are your notes and should not be shared with hospital staff (i.e., do not let anyone take your notes and do not allow them to be photocopied).

Complaints about Physicians

Doctors, generally are not employed by the hospital and their actions (or inactions) within a hospital are not mandated or controlled by the hospital.  Exceptions are: emergency room physicians, hospitalists, and critical care/intensive care specialists in the larger hospitals.  However, all serious incidents and deaths that occur within the hospital are to be reviewed by a special review panel.  Doctors are also required to communicate effectively and fully with all other care providers to ensure the best possible outcomes.  Any complaints about a physician should go to both the Patient Care Quality Office (see below) and to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC.  Please see separate blog for How to File a Complaint about a Doctor, coming soon.

Complaints about nursing staff (RN’s, LPN’s, Care Aides)

Complaints should be initiated when:

  1. There has been physical or emotional harm/abuse at the hands of a hospital or long term caregiver to you, your loved one or you have witnessed an assault on another patient. (Yes, it is your right and obligation to report abuse to any other person—even when, and especially if, you are told it’s none of your business).
  2. Your concerns and complaints regarding symptoms and care were not taken seriously or not addressed, especially in life-threatening circumstances.
  3. Care was denied or withheld, especially as a ‘punishment’ for ‘bad behaviour’ or for speaking up against care received or the caregivers.
  4. When a serious error has taken place:
    • The wrong medications administered;
    • Misidentification of the patient during any treatment, procedure or surgery;
  5. Potential transfer of serious pathogen (for example, lack of hand washing or housekeeping exposing you or your vulnerable loved one to bacteria or viruses, especially pathogens that are antibiotic resistant ( Difficile, MRSA, VRE, and CRE.)

Starting the complaint process:

Assault
If there has been a physical assault to you, your loved one, or another patient, you have the right to have immediate action taken and the caregiver removed from the situation.  Go through the steps below.  If the caregiver is not removed and the most senior appropriate nursing manager has not been notified, you have the right to call the police.  Assault is a criminal offence, no matter where it occurs or who the perpetrator is.
Media
We highly discourage going straight to the media with your complaint.  It might make you feel better in the short-term but the repercussions can be significant, especially if your facts are murky, not concise, or worse, inaccurate.  Health authorities have staff dedicated to countering media complaints.  Your public complaint may seriously affect future care of you or your loved one. 
Witness
During all meetings with nursing staff and managers, make every effort to have a ‘witness’.  Your witness should be allowed to make notes.  A professional patient or legal advocate is the best person for this role but any calm, logical person is appropriate.  It’s unfortunate, but everyone behaves better, and more honestly when a third party is in the room.
  1. With as calm a mind as possible, ask to speak to the ‘Charge Nurse’ – there’s one on every shift and on day shift they are most often called the Patient Care Coordinator or PCC. Ask to sit in a quiet room.  Do not speak openly in a public area, such as the nursing station.  If your complaint is not taken seriously and/or is not resolved move on…
  2. On a day shift, Monday through Friday, ask to speak to the Nursing Manger. You will likely get resistance at this point.  Nursing Managers are often in charge of several units and are very busy.  They rely on their charge nurses to resolve issues. However, you have every right to ask for the Nursing Manager and say that you will wait (whenever possible) but will expect to see him/her before end-of-day.
  3. If the incident occurs on a weekend or on evening (3:00 pm to 11:00 pm) or during the night (11:00 pm to 7:00 am), and ONLY if the situation can’t wait until morning, ask to speak with the Nursing Supervisor or Nursing Site Manager. Use your notes and be specific.  Why does this require action and resolution right away?
  4. Ask that an “Incident Report” be written and then read and ask to sign the report but only if it is accurate.
  5. If the issue is not resolved fully and to your complete satisfaction, contact the Patient Care Quality Office (PCQO). This is NOT an emergency line.  The offices generally take up to 48 hours to respond, Monday through Friday.   The complaint process should be on large posters in the hospital or care facility near elevators.  Or, see the information for the appropriate health authority below. (Note: The Patient Care Quality Office is completely different than the provincial Patient Care Review Board – see below.)  You will need all of the relevant information you’ve gathered as per the W5 above.
  6. If the PCQO does not respond, or does not respond appropriately, you can then take the matter to the Director of Nursing office for the hospital or care facility.
  7. If you have the name of the RN, or LPN, you can also make a complaint to the appropriate College (go to link). If a registered care aide is involved in the incident, the employer is legally obligated to report the abuse to the BC Care Aide & Health Worker Registry.
  8. If the hospital, nursing staff, and PCQO are not responding or not responding appropriately and you require immediate resolution you can contact your MLA but you will need to show what you’ve done to resolve this situation on your own.
  9. After you have received a written response from the PCQO, and if you are not satisfied, you are encouraged to make a formal written complaint to the Patient Care Quality Review Board (PCQRB). The PCQRB has 120 BUSINESS days to respond (about 5 months) with their decision.  Therefore, this is not a course of action for issues that need urgent resolution.

Patient Care Quality Offices

These office address complaints for their health authority for all acute care hospitals, clinics, and all publicly funded assisted living and residential (long term care) facilities.  The PCQOs also oversee patient care in assisted and residential care facilities that are privately owned but ‘contract’ beds to the health authority.  Also see “Facility Licensing” below.


Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA)

Contact Info:

Services and Hospitals Include:

  • All BC Cancer Agencies
  • BC Emergency Health Services (Ambulance and Paramedics)
  • BC Centre for Disease Control
  • BC Children’s Hospital & Sunnyhill Hospital for Children
  • BC Women’s Hospital & associated services

Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCH)
Contact Info:

  • Tel: 1.877.993.9199
  • Fax: 604.875.5545
  • Email: pcqo@vch.ca
Regions Served:

  • Vancouver City
  • Richmond
  • North and West Vancouver
  • Sea to Sky Corridor to Whistler
  • Garibaldi, including Sunshine Coast, Bella Coola and Bella Bella

Providence Health Authority (PSA)
Contact Info:

Facilities Served:

Catholic based acute care hospitals, assisted and residential care, hospices in Vancouver and Burnaby including: St. Paul’s Hospital and Mt. St. Josephs Hospital 


Fraser Health Authority (FHA)
Contact Info:

Regions Served:

  • Burnaby
  • New West Minster
  • Port Moody
  • Coquitlam
  • Port Coquitlam
  • Fraser Valley: Surrey to Hope

Vancouver Island Health Authority (also known as Island Health) (VIHA or IH)
Contact Us:

Regions Served:

  • All of Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands 

Interior Health Authority (IHA)

Contact Info:

  • Toll Free Number: 1-877-IHA-2001 (1-877-442-2001)
  • Fax: 250-870-4670
  • E-mail: Contact us by email
Regions Served:

  • Central Interior from US border, through Okanagan, Okanagan- Similkameen, and Thompson-Okanagan.

Northern Health Authority (NHA)
Contact Info:

Regions Served:

  • From Quesnel and Valemont to BC-Yukon Border
  • Central hub is Prince George