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NHS failing to deal with patient complaints

Which? calls for NHS to act on patient concerns


Hospital care

Being prepared can make your hospital stay easier

A damning report highlighting failures in the way NHS trusts handle patients’ complaints has confirmed that raising problems can be bad for your health, Which? says today.

In its first audit of how complaints are handled, the Healthcare Commission has issued warnings to 30 of the 42 NHS trusts it reviewed.

It found some patients had their letters of complaint ignored while others waited months for an investigation to be launched. It also said that nine trusts had failed to safeguard the care of patients who had registered complaints.

We recently published our own research which found almost half of NHS patients are unhappy with an aspect of their care but the majority don’t raise the issue with staff, because they don’t feel it will make any difference or think it may be detrimental to the care they receive.

Complaint handling

Health campaigner Clare Corbett said: ‘Patients feel worried about giving feedback and this latest report seems to confirm they’re right to feel that way.

‘For the NHS effective complaint handling could put patients at the heart of their care and drive improvements. If the NHS continues to ignore its patients in this way, we won’t see the improvements in the quality of care that politicians promise and patients deserve.  We need a cultural shift that allows the NHS to listen and act on patients’ concerns.’

The commission inspected 42 trusts for the latest audit – 32 which it had concerns about and 10 it believed handled complaints well and could provide evidence of best practice.

It measured them against core standards including making the complaints system accessible to patients, learning from mistakes, and ensuring a patient’s care is not compromised because they have made a complaint.

‘Significant lapses’

Of the 32 poor performing trusts, 12 were issued with a notification letter after ‘significant lapses’ was noted, six were issued a notification letter after some risk was identified and 12 were told to make improvements. Two were told they needed to take no further action.

The watchdog also found a lack of systems to monitor whether care had changed in any way after a complaint was made.

It concluded that the way some NHS trusts handle patient complaints is fragmented and inconsistent.

The first step for patients who wish to complain is to contact the body providing the care, such as their GP surgery or the local primary care trust (PCT).

Independent review

If the issue is not resolved to the patient’s satisfaction, he or she has six months to take their complaint to the Healthcare Commission for independent review.

The body receives around 8,000 such requests each year, of which a third are sent back to the trust to be resolved.

Anna Walker, the commission’s Chief Executive, said: ‘Given that the NHS provides 380 million treatments a year, the number of complaints – 140,000 – is relatively small.

‘But when someone does complain, trusts need to respond well. Patients want complaints resolved quickly and locally.

‘Trusts need to show they can respond to the individual’s concern and learn as an organisation. If they do not, it could seriously damage people’s faith in the NHS.

‘The best organisations clearly value feedback from the people they serve, but the NHS is some way from doing this consistently.’

New system

The Department of Health has recently proposed a new system for ensuring more complaints locally as research shows this is what patients want.

But the watchdog says its audit raises questions about whether trusts have the capacity and capability to take this on.   

Ms Walker said: ‘There are serious questions about whether trusts are in a position to ramp up their systems in time to provide the necessary standard of service.’

Take a look at our guide to complaining about a healthcare proffessional. 

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