In a recent report, Dame Julie Mellor, the Health Service Ombudsman acknowledges the important role that complaints play in improving the health service, “when patients go unheard the result is careless communication, insincere apologies and unclear explanations.” Disappointingly the Ombudsman concludes that many NHS Trusts are failing patients in the way that they respond to complaints.

In our clinical negligence practice we see a lot of patient complaints. Often patients that are worried about poor care make a complaint because they would like an apology and reassurance that changes will be made to healthcare services.  If an apology is made promptly, as part of the complaints process, the NHS Trust is more likely to restore faith in its service. Disappointingly, even where the apologies are made, these are often poorly worded and the Ombudsman records a 42% increase in complaints about the nature of apologies over the last year.

The Ombudsman reported a 50% increase in complaints from people who felt that the NHS had not acknowledged mistakes in care. Almost four out of five of those complaints were upheld by the Ombudsman which meant that the NHS had lost a valuable opportunity to restore trust in its services, and to put safeguards in place to prevent the same medical mistakes arising again.

The report gives examples of poor communication by the NHS in response to complaints. These include one letter which contained a one hundred and eleven word sentence and another which referred to death as “rarely an ideal situation for anyone.” With responses such as these, it is no wonder that patients and their families seek the assistance of the Ombudsman, or obtain legal advice.

The report acknowledges that the NHS is facing a period of enormous change, in the aftermath of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Inquiry and as a result of the Health and Social Care Act 2012. If the NHS is able to better engage with patients raising concerns then it has an enormous opportunity to improve care and communication across the board.