30 December 2015

Many older people are afraid to raise the alarm when something goes wrong in their care and worry about what will happen to them if they do, according to a new report published today.

The report, called Breaking down the Barriers, produced by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, reveals that people over the age of 75 often lack the knowledge and confidence to complain, and worry about the impact complaining might have on their future care and treatment.

The report shows that many don’t want to make a fuss and are confused about where to turn to for help, fearing that complaining will make little difference, or even make matters worse.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman sees far fewer complaints from older people than would be expected given elderly people’s high usage of NHS and social care services.

The review was based on a number of focus groups with older people and their carers organised by Independent Age, a national survey of 689 people over the age of 65, and the review of the unresolved complaints brought to the Ombudsman. It found that:

  • Over half (56%) of those aged 65 and over who had experienced a problem but not complained, were worried about the impact that complaining might have on their future treatment.
  • Nearly one in five (18%) people over the age of 75 did not know how to raise a complaint about the NHS or a social care provider
  • Among those over the age of 65 who were unhappy with a service, but who didn’t complain, over a third (32%) felt that complaining would not make a difference
  • Less than a third of the older people surveyed could recall being offered support to make a complaint.

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Julie Mellor said:

'Older people are some of the most frequent and vulnerable users of health and social care services but are the silent majority when it comes to complaining.

'Their reluctance to complain could mean that they are suffering in silence and could lead to missed opportunities to improve the service for others.

'We want older people to be confident to speak up when things go wrong to help prevent someone else from going through the same ordeal.'

The report recommends that all NHS and organisations that provide social care should use 'My Expectations for raising concerns and complaints', which sets out what good complaint handling looks like from the perspective of patients and people that use the service, and can help those organisations measure whether the actions they are taking are making a difference to the patients' experience.

The NHS and organisations that provide social care should make older patients aware of how to complain, point them to the support that is available to them, and make it absolutely clear that their future care will not be compromised if they complain.

The government is examining options for a new streamlined Public Service Ombudsman, which will incorporate the services currently provided by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and the Local Government Ombudsman, and make it easier for people to complain when they have been let down by a public service.

Notes to editors

  1. For more information please contact Marina Soteriou on 0300 061 4996 or email marina.soteriou@ombudsman.org.uk

    For out-of-hours media enquiries, please contact the duty press officer on 07825 781 289.

  2. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman makes final decisions on complaints that have not been resolved by the NHS in England and UK government departments and other UK public organisations.
  3. For more information about 'My Expectations' please visit: http://www.ombudsman.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/28774/Vision_report.pdf
  4. Specific rights on complaining about an NHS service are set out in the NHS Constitution, but awareness of these basic entitlements remains fairly low. Research undertaken by the Department of Health highlights how the majority (76%) of the general public are unaware of the NHS constitution, and even among NHS staff, 31% are unaware: Department of Health. Report on the effects of the NHS constitution, 2015.