We are often contacted by patients and families who are left unsatisfied and, understandably, frustrated by the outcome of an NHS complaint.

The complaints process is generally the first port of call where people are unhappy with the treatment that they, or a family member, have received. Complaints are often made in the hope answers will be given about the treatment administered but patients and families will often be seeking acknowledgement that lessons have been learned to prevent the same thing occurring again. In many situations, a person making a complaint is seeking an apology.

How do I make an NHS complaint?

Unfortunately, the reality is that patients and families are often left disappointed by the outcome of the complaints process.  In some instances, grieving families are left not knowing why a loved one has died, which inevitably causes additional distress and frustration.

Making a complaint to the Health Ombudsman

Where patients or families are unsatisfied with an NHS Trust's response to their complaints, they can escalate matters to the office of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO). The PHSO has recently published new figures reflecting the NHS' handling of complaints.

The Ombudsman, Dame Julie Mellor, has criticised the handling of complaints and stressed the need for a more effective system. She says:

'Parents and families are being met with a wall of silence from the NHS when they seek answers as to why a loved one died or was harmed.

'People want answers, to understand what happened and why, and to know that action is being taken to prevent the same thing happening again to others.'

Complaining to the Ombudsman

The PHSO report has revealed that record numbers (a fifty percent increase in five years) of patients are being forced to turn to watchdogs because they are dissatisfied with the NHS' response to their complaint.  

More than one in three cases in 2014/2015 involved those who did not receive an adequate apology and, in almost a quarter of cases, complaints had been made because the hospital investigating the complaint had got crucial facts wrong and failed to complete their investigations.

The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has recognised the trend in figures and said that:

'The NHS often provides superb care, but where things do go wrong patients deserve an apology and an explanation.'

This increasing trend in the handling of NHS complains is particularly worrying in the light of the statutory Duty of Candour. The Duty is a legal requirement to ensure that the NHS is open and transparent in its dealings with patients and families, with criminal implications for breaching this obligation. The specific requirements set out that, when things go wrong, there must be proper dialogue with patients and families, providing reasonable support, truthful information and an apology.

What if I am unhappy with the answer to my complaint?

When the complaints process does not provide sufficient answers, patients and families often feel compelled to turn to litigation, in the form of a medical negligence claim, and seek compensation.  Although the litigation process can, in some circumstances, not be an easy experience, it may provide the answers to some of those all-important questions: what went wrong? Who was responsible? Why did my loved one die?

There is no guarantee that the litigation process will isolate the individual, or individuals, responsible; nor can it be foreseen whether an apology will be issued. However, it is hoped that, alongside financial reward, bringing a claim helps to identify any avoidable medical errors that occurred, giving patients and families more information about what happened and offering closure.