Doubt cast on intended improvements to ‘pointless’ NHS system

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The Department of Health have given assurances that they will overhaul the system for making complaints about NHS care, after a survey found that more than two thirds of patients think the process is pointless.

But Ashtons Legal cast doubt on whether any changes can be successful. The report by the Patients Association described the NHS complaints system as ‘cumbersome, variable and takes too long’.

Of nearly 500 patients polled, 69 per cent said that they had wanted to complain about the healthcare they had received in the past five years. For those who complained, 29 per cent described the process as totally pointless, 20.5 per cent as pointless and 19 per cent as slightly pointless. Only 2 per cent said that the experience had been “very useful”.

More than four fifths (81 per cent) believed that there was not a culture of openness in the NHS when errors occurred and that staff were not encouraged to report mistakes.

The association’s report concludes: ‘While patients will always accept that errors will occur in any health service, what they will not accept is the fact that staff are not open about admitting such errors occur.’

On the matter of recent MRSA outbreaks and other healthcare-acquired infections, 47 per cent of patients blamed NHS trust managers. Nurses and cleaning staff were blamed by 16 per cent of respondents, and 10 per cent believed that doctors were responsible.

Three quarters of respondents felt that trust in doctors and nurses has decreased compared with five years ago. As a result, 96 per cent said they believed that patients questioned the actions of doctors and nurses more than they used to.

The Department of Health said it would be reforming the system so that patients’ concerns were taken seriously. An official said: ‘We know that people find the current complaints system confusing. Some may also avoid complaining because they feel too intimidated or worry about damaging their relationship with their GP or social worker. This must change.

‘We are introducing a streamlined approach that will remove the need to follow a rigid set of procedures and replace them with a more open, flexible and personal service.’

If patients fail to resolve complaints at a local level they can forward their concerns to the Healthcare Commission, the NHS regulator.

The Patients Association called for NHS trust boards to be publicly accountable for an ‘open, transparent and timely resolution of complaints’. It also wants an end to system where standard complaint responses vary depending on the region.

Katherine Murphy, the group’s communications director, said: ‘Every complaint matters. Ignoring complaints results in wasted resources, frustrated patients and cynicism about the system.’

Sandra Patton is a member of Ashtons Legal’s specialist clinical negligence team, and admits that she has little faith in the proposed changes.

‘We see examples all the time of the NHS finding it almost impossible to accept either that its patients are individuals with their own rights or that its own staff can sometimes be at fault,’ she says.

‘When something goes wrong


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