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Complaints handling too variable and defensive

Complaints handling in the NHS continues to be variable, with too many patients still encountering a defensive, complicated system.

This is the key conclusion of the Health Select Committee, which says that while there have been improvements more needs to be done.

It recommends NHS organisations develop a single, easily identified gateway for complainants.

The all-party group of MPs finds that most of those who complain about NHS services do not seek financial redress. They do so because they wish to have their concerns and experiences understood and for any failings to be acknowledged and put right so that others do not suffer the same avoidable harm.

Where such errors occur, patients and their families deserve to be met with a system which is open to complaints, supports them through the process and which delivers a timely apology, explanation and a determination to learn from mistakes, the report says.

The current system for complaints handling however, remains variable, it says. Too many complaints are mishandled with people encountering poor communication or, at worst, a defensive and complicated system which results in a complete breakdown in trust and a failure to improve patient safety.

The select committee says the number of complaints about a provider, rather than being an indicator of failure, may highlight a service which has developed a positive culture of complaints handling and it will be important for system and professional regulators alike to be able to identify the difference.

Complaint handling remains overly complex and the committee recommends a single gateway for raising complaints and concerns with clearer, adequately resourced arrangements for advocacy and support.

The removal of primary care complaints handling from local areas has resulted in a disconnection from local knowledge and learning and led to unacceptable delays. The Committee recommends that this is rectified.

There is also a strong case for integrating complaints about health and social care under the same umbrella and this should start with a single rather than separate ombudsmen.

Just as the NHS is expected to respond in a timely, honest and open manner to patients or families raising complaints or concerns, we should expect the same for staff. The treatment of whistleblowers remains a stain on the reputation of the NHS and has led to unwarranted and inexcusable pain for a number of individuals, the committee says.

The treatment of those whistleblowers has not only caused them direct harm but has also undermined the willingness of others to come forward and this has ongoing implications for patient safety. The committee says vindicated whistleblowers should be identified and receive an apology and practical redress.

Committee chair Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, said: “Concerns and complaints are an important source of information for improving services and it is vital that the NHS continues on the path of changing the way that these are viewed and handled.

“There can be no excuse for not implementing a complaints service which is easy to use and responsive to patients and their families but sadly the situation remains variable. We welcome the progress to date but make recommendations for further work in this area. In particular we recommend a single, easily identified gateway for complainants which can then make sure their complaint is handled by the most appropriate organisation. In the case of primary care for example, we do not feel that complaints should be investigated in an entirely different part of the country or plagued by delays.”

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