National Ombudsmen
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NHS is failing to deal appropriately with most basic complaints

‘Patchy and slow’ is how the Health Service Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, describes the progress the NHS is making to improve the way it deals with patients’ complaints. In her latest report on NHS performance she warns that ‘The NHS is still not dealing adequately with the most straightforward matters’ and that too many minor disputes are escalated to her Office before they are resolved.

Published today (18 October 2011), Listening and Learning: the Ombudsman’s review of complaint handling by the NHS in England 2010-11 features previously unpublished information about complaints that the NHS has failed to resolve locally. It reveals which NHS trusts and which regions in England generated the most complaints to the Ombudsman’s Office (the second and final stage in the NHS complaints system) during the year. It also highlights the most common reasons for people to complain, and includes complaints information on every trust across the country.

The Ombudsman’s Office received over 15,000 complaints about the NHS in 2010-11. As the stories in the report illustrate, last year relatively minor disputes about unanswered telephones or mix-ups over appointments ended up with the Ombudsman because of knee-jerk responses by NHS staff, and poor complaint handling.

In particular, the Ombudsman highlights an increased number of complaints about the removal of patients from their GP practice’s list, sometimes without warning.  Last year, 21 per cent of all complaints about GPs investigated by the Ombudsman were about patient removals, a rise of
6 per cent compared to the previous year. In one case, a terminally ill woman was removed from her GP’s list following a dispute between the practice and her daughter. In another case, a woman was removed from her GP’s list after a ‘simple disagreement’ about unanswered telephone calls.  As GPs prepare to take on greater responsibility for commissioning patient services, the report warns that some are failing to handle even the most basic complaints appropriately.

Patients and their families need to be encouraged to speak up and complain. Ann Abraham explains:

‘There is a growing recognition that patient feedback is a valuable resource for the NHS at a time of uncertainty and change. It is a resource that is directly and swiftly available, covering all aspects of service, care and treatment.  But when feedback is ignored and becomes a complaint, it risks changing from being an asset to a cost.’

The report also reveals that in 2010-11:

  • London and the North West were the two regions that generated the most complaints.
  • More complaints were received about hospital, specialist and teaching trusts (acute) than any other group – 6,924 complaints
    (46 per cent).
  • Primary care trusts and GPs accounted for 18 per cent and
    17 per cent, respectively, of all complaints.
  • More complaints were made about Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust than any other.
  • The two most common reasons people gave for being dissatisfied with how the NHS had handled their complaint were poor explanations and no acknowledgement of mistakes.
  • 230 complaints were resolved quickly and informally through the Ombudsman’s ‘intervention’, and a further 351 complaints were accepted for investigation.
  • The Ombudsman secured nearly £500,000 for patients to help remedy injustice caused by poor care or poor complaint handling.

Notes to Editors:

  1. The Health Service Ombudsman’s role is to consider complaints that the NHS in England has not acted properly or fairly, or has provided a poor service. We are a free service, open to everyone.
  2. Ann Abraham currently holds the post of Health Service Ombudsman and is also Parliamentary Ombudsman. She is appointed by the Crown and is completely independent of government and the NHS.
  3. The full report Listening and Learning: the Ombudsman’s review of complaint handling by the NHS in England 2010-11 is  available at www.ombudsman.org.uk/listening-and-learning-2011.
  4. For media enquiries or to request an interview, please contact the Press Office on 0300 061 4996/3924 or email press@ombudsman.org.uk. Follow us on Twitter: @PHSOmbudsman, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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