Research published in June 2015 by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman shows that only one-third of those who are unhappy with a public service actually went on to make a complaint even though "an overwhelming number" felt that they should complain. In 2014/2015, almost eight out of ten of this Ombudsman's investigations concerned the NHS in England.
Every NHS organisation has adopted a complaints procedure and should give details on request. Each NHS trust has a Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) which can give confidential support and advice to a patient or their family who are worried that treatment received in an NHS hospital was not up to standard. Local authorities also have a statutory duty to provide independent advocacy services to support those who are considering making a complaint.
Julie Mellor, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, said: "People are reluctant to make complaints to public services even though they think it is right to complain. Too many people don't know how to complain and feel that, if they do, it won't make a difference. This means concerns are going unheard or unaddressed."
In a recent Guardian article, Ms Mellor said that only one-third of those who had complained locally about a public service "felt they were listened to" while fewer than half said the complaint process was simple and easy to use. The research found that more than half of those surveyed were worried that the fact they complained could affect the way they were treated and 28% said they believed their complaint would not make a difference.
Ms Mellor commented that the survey's results were of concern because "complaints give an organisation the opportunity to learn lessons from mistakes and improve the service. Complaints shouldn't be feared by those on the frontline or by public service leavers." Nevertheless, she said "many hospitals are trying out innovative ways to deal with complaints or better still, they are trying to address concerns so that they don't turn into complaints."
The Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team has handled several cases where a hospital's complaints procedure has failed to properly investigate the concerns of a patient or the patient's family. Clinical negligence lawyer, Camilla Wonnacott, said: “When the complaint file is disclosed, we sometimes find that, although the hospital's investigation highlighted errors, this information was missing from the complaint response given to the patient. Our clients often express their fear that their complaint and the litigation process will interfere with the quality of any future treatment.
“In our February 2015 article we called for the culture in dealing with NHS complaints to change so that patients can be confident when raising their concerns and lessons can be learned from past mistakes. This recent research only goes to show there is still some way to go.”