The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) has condemned the NHS complaints procedure as a review of the process has found that patients who complain about their care are being let down by "appalling" NHS investigations. 

In assessing the process, the PHSO has conducted a review of 150 complaints regarding allegations that patients had died or suffered avoidable harm because of failings in their care. Of these 150 cases, there were failings in the handling of over one third of these complaints by NHS trusts in England. 

The investigations concluded that 28 of the 150 cases should have been investigated by the NHS as a Serious Untoward Incident (SUI). These are identified to allow medical practitioners to learn from past mistakes but, in 71% of these cases, the hospital failed to escalate the complaint to an SUI. Furthermore, it has been found that investigations were not carried out when they should have been and, even with the cases that were investigated, the respective trusts failed to adequately explain how or why the failings happened. 

Despite the Government’s pledge to create a more open NHS culture, the families interviewed as part of the review also complained they felt "belittled" and "misled" by medical staff who failed to listen to their concerns or to give them straight answers. However, it has long been known that patients’ concerns are not been investigated independently, as the trusts that are subject of the complaint often carry out internal investigations themselves. 

Commenting on the PHSO review findings, Dr Katherine Rake, the Chief Executive of the patient group Healthwatch England, said: "What we need is a complete overhaul of the complaints system that ensures every incident is properly investigated and learnt from, and that those affected are treated with the dignity they deserve." 

Naomi Holland, an associate in the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team said: “Unfortunately, this investigation report reflects what we frequently find in practice. Despite patients and/ or relatives of patients affected by poor care taking the time to highlight their concerns in the belief that the hospitals will thoroughly investigate them, this is often not the case. 

“We frequently see correspondence from the hospitals that fails to address the fundamental errors in the care/ practice. Some issues are either not investigated or, alternatively, open explanations are not given for fear of repercussions. The culture in dealing with complaints needs to change so that patients are confident of raising concerns about poor care to prevent the same mistakes from happening again.”