National Ombudsmen
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New research shows NHS boards believe use of complaints information needs to get better

The majority of leaders of NHS Hospital Trusts believe that they are failing to use information from complaints as well as they should because the data boards receive lacks the right quality and detail, according to new research published recently (5 June 2013) by the Health Service Ombudsman for England.

Of 165 respondents from 94 NHS trusts from across England who were surveyed:

  • Only 20% review learning from complaints and take resulting action to improve services;
  • Less than half measure patient satisfaction with the way complaints are handled;
  • Less than two thirds use a consistent approach to reviewing complaints data; and even where they did use a consistent approach, metrics vary significantly from trust to trust suggesting there is no recognised standard of complaints analysis for NHS boards; and
  • Around a fifth said the information they received was “ineffective” in identifying and reducing risks to patient safety.

The research will inform the Health Service Ombudsman’s recommendations to the Clwyd/Hart review of NHS hospital complaints system and its on-going work with boards to develop and embed good practice.

Commenting on the research, Health Service Ombudsman, Julie Mellor, said:

 “There are many encouraging signs in the research we are publishing today to indicate that NHS Trust Boards do recognise the value of complaints information to patient safety. However, the results of our research also suggest that too many Boards are not considering the kind of analysis they need in order to understand patient experience and use information from patient complaints to improve safety and care. From ward to board level, learning from complaints needs to improve.”

The research highlighted a number of barriers to effective complaints handling:

  • 18% of respondents agree that a defensive culture which refutes complaints is a barrier to effective complaint handling;
  • 20% of respondents say that their hospital does not test the effectiveness of their complaints processes;
  • Around 10% do not have, or are not aware of having, key practices in place to encourage complaints; and
  • Over 80% do not believe that complaints information is effectively shared across NHS trusts and nearly half of respondents feel they cannot effectively benchmark complaints.

But the research also highlighted a number of welcome areas of good practice:

  • Almost all boards surveyed report having made changes and service improvements as a result of complaints information in the last 12 months. Improvements included better communication with patients and staff training;
  • Around nine in ten respondents report that their Trust Chief Executives are involved in signing off, or responding to, individual complaints; and all report that that their Trust has at least some board level involvement in reviewing complaints information; and
  • Boards typically review complaints information on a monthly basis at board or committee meetings, although most still say there is room for improvement in the way they use complaints information.

The Health Service Ombudsman is calling on the Clwyd/Hart review of hospital complaints to recommend that NHS hospital boards receive reports on complaints that include:

  • Analysis which enables boards to consider trends and themes as well as responses to individual complaints;
  • Assessments on whether real organisational learning and service improvements have taken place as a result of complaints;
  • Feedback on the patient experience of complaining, in order to plan improvements to hospital complaints procedures; and
  • Consistent measures to test the effectiveness of complaints handling overall.

You can find a copy of research here and a pdf of this press release here.

Notes to editors:

  1. The Health Service Ombudsman commissioned IFF Research to undertake a survey, ‘Governance of complaints handling in NHS hospitals’ to provide a picture of the state of complaints governance among Foundation Trusts and NHS Trusts in England.  
  2. The research took the form of 165 interviews with 94 unique trusts during the period 29 April – 13 May 2013.
  3. Interviews were undertaken with NHS Hospital Trust Chief Executives (34%), Board chairs (26%) and Non-Executive Directors (28%), as well as other members of staff.
  4. The Health Service Ombudsman was set up by Parliament to help both individuals and the general public. We are not part of the NHS.  The Ombudsman’s role is to investigate complaints that individuals have been treated unfairly or have received poor service from the NHS or NHS funded services. The service is free to use and open to everyone.
  5. If someone is unhappy about the service they have received from the NHS in England they should first make their complaint to the department or organisation in question and give them the chance to respond.  If they’re not happy with how their complaint is dealt with, they should contact the Ombudsman – call 0345 015 4033 or email
  6. For media enquiries, contact the Ombudsman’s Press Office on 0300 061 4996/4272 or email 


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