A recent review has cast serious doubt upon the quality of NHS investigations into complaints where serious or avoidable harm was alleged.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s review looked at cases already investigated by the NHS and where no failings were found in the care provided. The ombudsman’s review found the opposite. Bereaved families are being left without answers as to why their loved ones suffered negligence.

The review, which was published on 8 December, found that when it comes to serious incidents, hospitals were failing to gather crucial evidence, failing to review that evidence and not finding out why the incidents occurred in the first instance.

The review was launched because the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, which investigates unresolved NHS complaints, found widespread variations in the quality of NHS investigations into avoidable death and harm. They surveyed managers who deal with complaints and hospital staff. A review of the unresolved complaints revealed:

  • Inconsistency and unreliability in the investigation process
  • In 73% of cases there were failings found when the Trust found none
  • In over 36% of cases the Trust could not say why a failing had occurred (of those cases 91% of managers said they were confident that answers would be found)
  • Impartial clinicians had not carried out some NHS investigations into complaints about avoidable harm and death
  • Two-thirds of cases had been wrongly classified as not serious and were not properly investigated.

Julie Mellor, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, was highly critical of the NHS following the review and described the findings as not “good enough.” Due to inconsistent and unreliable findings by the NHS, her view was that too many people are being forced to take their case to the Ombudsman to get resolved.

When something goes wrong, and before contemplating legal proceedings against a Trust, many of our clients pursue the NHS complaints procedure. However, if the complaint is not thoroughly investigated, it can do more harm than good.

On receiving a complaint the Trust has an opportunity. An opportunity to allay the fears of the aggrieved person and to consider its own internal processes to ensure similar instances does not re-occur. According to the Ombudsman’s review, Trusts are failing on both accounts.

The number of claims against the NHS is a hot topic of conversation. There are many reasons for this. The failure by the NHS to investigate complaints is one of them. Each and every failure means the aggrieved person loses further confidence in the hospital, very often has more unanswered questions then they did at the beginning of the process and they see litigation as their only way of getting the answers they desperately seek.