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Making complaints about NHS treatment : is it time for a change?


    A blog considering the process involved in making a complaint to the NHS about medical treatment and considering a recent report and recommendations for changes to the process.

    By Joachim Stanley

Patients receiving treatment from the NHS can, on some occasions, receive care that leads to a cause for complaint. The current NHS complaint process can leave patients and their families frustrated, upset and dissatisfied. The investigation of a complaint can be slow, difficult and sometimes confusing and that is why steps are being taken to make the process more transparent.

Current Complaint Process

The NHS complaint process is split into 2 stages. The first stage is to make a formal complaint to your treatment provider such as your GP, dentist, pharmacist or hospital about the care you have received. Your complaint must be made within 12 months of the date you received the poor treatment but this time limit can be extended in certain circumstances.

Each treatment provider has their own process for dealing with complaints but in general, your complaint will be acknowledged and steps will be taken to investigate the issues raised.

The investigation process should be conducted promptly and there should be no undue delay. Once the investigation is complete you should receive a full response outlining the findings. However, many patients and their families do not receive a satisfactory response.

If you are not happy with the response to your complaint, the second stage of the process comes into affect and your complaint can be referred to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. This is an independent body that will investigate your complaint further.

Referring a complaint to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) must be done within 12 months of the response from the original treatment provider.

Criticisms of the Process

The Public Administration Select Committee recently published a report – “Investigating Clinical Incidents in the NHS”.

This report was compiled in response to concerns that there is an inadequate capacity for investigating and reporting on clinical incident investigations across the whole of the NHS. It also highlighted that service providers can be defensive and often reluctant to share everything that had been uncovered during the investigation process.

We have also written before about concerns that the PHSO is very slow in investigating complaints which can often then exacerbate the problems with the initial complaint rather than solving them.

The report has addressed a number of issues but highlighted the need for complaints to be investigated thoroughly, not only to help families and patients to make sense of what has happened to them, but to be used as a learning tool and to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated.


The report makes recommendations for a national independent patient safety investigation body to be established which would investigate complaints when they are first made, in the hope that complaints would be investigated independently and in an open and honest way.

The reports states:

This must provide three key elements, which are currently lacking. First, it must offer a safe space: strong protections to patients and staff, so they can talk freely about what has gone wrong without punitive reprisals. Second, it must be independent of providers, commissioners and regulators, and so able to investigate whether and how the system as a whole was instrumental in contributing to clinical failure. Third, for transparency and accountability, and to drive learning and improvement, it must have the power to publish its reports and to disseminate its recommendations.”

Having experience of the distress that a poorly investigated complaint can cause to a patient, I hope that changes can be made to the complaints process so that it is more transparent and efficient for patients and also healthcare professionals, and this independent body seems a sensible step.

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