Recent press reports have revealed that official statistics show that the NHS is receiving 3,000 patient complaints every week. In 2012-13 the total number of complaints received by the NHS was 162,019, which equates to approximately 430 per day.

However, the Health and Social Care Information Centre have also released figures, which showed a slight decrease in the number of complaints since last year and showed that the majority of complaints made were against hospitals and community health services. GP practices failed to submit data and hospital and community health service complaints had increased by 1.9% from 107,259 to 109,316.

By far the largest number of complaints was against hospital medical professionals such as hospital doctors and surgeons and these accounted for 47.1% or 51,462 complaints. Surprisingly, given the high populous of nursing and midwifery and health visiting staff, they only accounted for the second biggest group at 22.1%, 24,146 complaints.

The complaints against family health services related to medical treatment with just over a quarter of complaints being made in respect of reception or administration staff.

Despite all this, it must be remembered that the NHS is an enormous organisation and performs hundreds of millions of procedures each year, thus treating over a million patients a month. It has also been suggested by Matt Tee, the Chief Operating Officer at the NHS, that:-

We should also keep in mind the volume of complaints does not necessarily indicate an organisation’s quality. A high number of complaints can reflect an organisation’s willingness to listen to negative feedback, and to learn how to make things better.

On the whole, the complaints procedure is relatively straightforward. If a person wishes to complain about medical treatment they have received under the NHS a formal letter of complaint should be sent to the Complaints Manager or PALS, details of which can be found on the relevant hospital or NHS Trust’s website. Most complaints are acknowledged almost immediately and thereafter are investigated and a full response is usually received within 23-25 working days. This is the deadline which is worked to but often it is for the complainant to continually chase the hospital concerned for a valid response. Often a response will not be received for many months, by which time the complainant has become very angry and may have contacted a solicitor for legal advice regarding pursuing a claim for clinical negligence.

The time limit for bringing a complaint is slightly draconian in that complaints should be made within six months of the event complained of or when the patient became aware that they had cause to complain but should ideally be brought within one year of the incident. This is not always helpful for the elderly or infirm who remain unwell and are unable to take further action or advice. 

It must also be remembered that the time taken in which to respond to a complaint can vary according to the complexity of the complaint and the clinical and nursing staff who need to be involved and interviewed.

Once a response has been received from the NHS Trust and if the complainant remains unhappy with the response received, a meeting can be arranged with the Legal/Complaints Department at the said hospital and the relevant parties to the complaint will be in attendance at the meeting. Minutes are usually available at these meetings, although of late many clients who have seen me after they have exhausted the NHS complaints procedure have provided me with a CD disc recording of any such meeting, which takes time to transcribe.  I always advise my clients to request copies of any minutes of the meeting before the meeting commences.

If the complainant remains unhappy with the outcome of the meeting, they then have the opportunity to either proceed further along the complaints path by contacting the Health Service Ombudsman who will assist in helping to resolve the complaint about the NHS.  The Ombudsman’s powers are set down by law and they are independent from the NHS and the government. They will usually only investigate a complaint after the NHS has investigated it. The deadline for pursuing matters via the ombudsman is within a year of when you first became aware of the problem.

Further, the NHS complaints procedure does not result in compensation being paid and complaints of a disciplinary nature usually need to be raised at the local level to the Trust involved in the first instance.

While the NHS constitution gives patients or their families the right to complain about treatment and have this investigated efficiently and to be informed of the result of the investigation, it is not foolproof. The procedures are intended to provide an investigation into care which a patient or their family are unhappy about, to provide an explanation as to what went wrong and an appropriate apology and to ensure that changes are made to prevent such errors happening again.

Information on the NHS Complaints Procedure and the Parliamentary Health Services Ombudsman can be found at:-

http://www.ombudsman.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/1011/FINAL_What-to-do-if-your-unhappy-with-the-NHS-A5-leaflet-2.pdf

Health Minister, Lord Howe, has recently been quoted as saying:-

Every complaint holds valuable information on how patients feel about their care. Complaints can be the early symptom of a problem within an organisation and the NHS should use them to learn from and improve their service.