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One year on from the Clwyd-Hart report, NHS complaints system still not fit for purpose, despite numerous calls for reform, says new report from the Patients Association

Complaints distressing, difficult and frequently produce little result, say patients

The NHS complaints system still exposes many patients to a grueling and unsatisfactory process, despite numerous high level calls for reforms, a new report from the Patients Association warns today.

A survey of more than 1,200 patients carried out by the Patients Association found high levels of dissatisfaction with the complaints process with patients frequently encountering unhelpful and defensive staff, complicated procedures to negotiate and sometimes dishonest replies.

The findings show that some patients are so daunted by the procedures or seen as a trouble-maker by hospital staff, that they do not bring a complaint despite having grounds to do so.

One patient told the survey: “After writing a six page letter which took some time, due to my wife’s illness and lack of sleep, a letter arrived a month later with just half a page reply which all I can say is a cover up from staff. I felt I have completely wasted my time.” So what is the point in taking the time to make a formal complaint?

Another told the interviewers: “I felt too distressed after my husband had a routine operation and days later bled to death. I had no one to help me and support me with a complaint. I had to spend months and months on the Internet trying to find out what led to my husband’s death. I have never been told what caused this.”

Another patient said: “My doctor said it would take up too much time and tie up a lot of NHS staff, so I dropped the matter.”

The survey found:

  • Around half of patients found the complaints process difficult to understand.
  • 40% of patients found staff to be unhelpful when a complaint was raised.
  • 50% of patients had concerns that the quality of care would be affected if they made a complaint.
  • Nearly half of patients (47%) said the complaint was poorly handled, with 26% of these saying it was very poorly handled.
  • Around two-thirds (66%) found the complaints procedure stressful, with 36% of these saying it was very stressful.
  • Under a third of people (30%) felt they were well informed about the progress of their complaint.
  • Over 62% of respondents felt the process was not as quick as it should have been, with half of those feeling it should have been a lot quicker.
  • Over 55% of respondents reported that they were dissatisfied with the final response they received, with the majority of these (35%) very dissatisfied.
  • Over a third of patients (36%) said they did not believe they had received an honest outcome.

The report states: “Complainants tell us of the despair and high levels of anxiety, often leading to ill health, as a direct consequence of making a complaint and the lack of dignity and respect they are afforded. Many have suffered bereavements as a result of health care failings and are desperate to find answers. Whilst living with the trauma of that loss, they are simultaneously dealing with the heavy burden placed upon them by the complaints processes.”

The report adds: “There can be no excuses for what the Patients Association hears day in and day out from patients, their families and friends, regarding their negative experiences when they make a complaint.”

The Patients Association acknowledges that some complaints are well handled but points out that too many are not.

“Many health professionals and NHS organisations do exhibit notable practice and excellent communication skills, listening to patients, getting to the root cause of their concerns, taking immediate and appropriate action to alleviate them. However, there are still too many complaints which are handled inappropriately, leaving patients and their relatives distressed, anxious and confused.”

The report points to two recent high level calls to reform the NHS complaints system - the Francis Inquiry into Mid Staffordshire Hospital and a Department of Health review last year carried out by Ann Clwyd, MP for the Cynon Valley, and Professor Tricia Hart, Chief Executive, South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – saying neither seems to have change attitudes.

Katherine Murphy, Chief Executive of the Patients Association said “One year on from the Clwyd-Hart report, patients continue to face huge barriers when complaining. They frequently tell us of the hostility and inappropriate professional behaviour they are subjected to. This equates to a lack of openness, honesty and the statutory duty of being open.

“There is little evidence of the promised total culture shift in the NHS, following Sir Robert Francis’ Inquiry into Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. Much more needs to be done to ensure patients, relatives and carers feel confident, supported and their concerns welcomed. Today we are launching our person friendly complaints charter designed by patients and the public. “

The report calls for a new Complaints Charter to be adopted by all NHS organisations. This states:

  1. Make it easy for me or a relative to make a complaint
  2. Keep me fully informed of my right to an advocate or support services to help me
  3. Offer me a Being Open meeting at the start of my complaint
  4. Give me a named person to contact
  5. Keep me  fully informed of progress at each stage of my complaint
  6. Actively listen to and hear my concerns - take them seriously at all levels
  7. Give me reassurance that my complaint will be thoroughly and appropriately investigated
  8. Treat me with honesty, openness, dignity and respect
  9. Make sure my complaint results in action to prevent the same thing happening again
  10. Apologise if mistakes have been made
  11. Do not give me excuses
  12. Give me the opportunity to be involved in making positive changes
  13. Ask me if I am satisfied with the outcome

Notes to Editors

The Patients Association report “Handling Complaints with a Compassionate Human Touch” surveyed more than 1,200 patients between October 2013 and September 2014. Just over half (55%) had made a complaint on their own behalf and 45% had complained on behalf of a relative or friend.

The full report is available to the media.

In August 2014 the Health and Social Care Information Centre published the annual count of written complaints made by (or on behalf) of patients, in the period 1st April 2013 and 31st March 2014.

The information is divided into data from Hospital and Community Health Services and a second category, focusing on Family Health Services, including GP and Dental.

The total number of all written complaints reported in 2013-14 was 174,872, the equivalent of more than 3,300 written complaints a week.

Hospital and Community Health Services (HCHS)

  • Total number of all HCHS written complaints reported has increased by 4,992 (4.6%) from 109,316 in 2012 -13 to 114,308 in 2013 -14.
  • The biggest proportion of HCHS written complaints by profession was in respect of the Medical profession (which includes hospital doctors and surgeons), which accounted for 45.65% (52,123), down from 47.1%t in 2012 -13.
  • Of all HCHS reported written complaints, Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting accounted for the second highest percentage at 21.7% (24,793), which is down from the 22.1% of 2012-13.

Family Health Services (GP & Dental)

  • Total number of all FHS written complaints reported in 2013-14 was 60,564.
  • 40.3% (24,405) of all FHS written complaints reported were for the Medical service area.  We are unable to provide comparisons with previous years.
  • 36.3 per cent (22,202) of all FHS written complaints reported were for the Clinical service area.

Category of complaints

  • Clinical aspects (42%).
  • Attitude and Communication (22%).
  • Administration, including delays and discharge processes (19%).
  • All other areas (17%).

For further information contact

  1. The Patients Association is a campaigning charity, listening to patients and speaking up for change. It has been working for over 50 years to make sure that the patient voice is heard and listened to by policy makers.
  2. For further information please contact the Patients Association on 020 8423 9111 or on  07779 004898 or email mailbox@patients-association.com
  3. To see more information on the Patients Association visit www.patients-association.com
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