Older patients’ families struggle to complain about poor hospital care

Older vulnerable people are often reliant on relatives to raise concerns when things go wrong in hospital, yet over half (51%) of family members with a concern say it is difficult to complain about the hospital care or treatment of an older relative, according to a new survey published today.

The survey, published by Gransnet and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, asked Gransnet members about their experiences of complaining to the NHS on behalf of an older relative in hospital.

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

A previous report by the Ombudsman Service has highlighted that 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.

The survey of over 600 Gransnet members reveals that:

  • of those who were concerned about the treatment of their older relative, just over half (58%) complained
  • two-thirds (67%) of those who complained do not believe complaining makes a difference
  • over 1 in 3 (35%) respondents said there were occasions where they were concerned about the care or treatment of their older relative in hospital
  • almost 1 in 3 (31%) felt that the hospital staff did not have an adequate understanding of their older relative’s condition or care needs.

The survey also reveals wider concerns about communication with older patients and their families:

  • 2 in 5 (40%) participants did not feel they were kept informed about their older relative’s condition in hospital and were not given enough opportunities to discuss their care and treatment;
  • 1 in 3 (33%) respondents felt they were not adequately involved in decisions about their older relative’s care and treatment. Poor communication is a factor in around one third of all complaints the Ombudsman service investigates about the NHS in England.

Rob Behrens, Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, said:

The NHS is a life-line for many vulnerable older people but when things go wrong, too many are suffering in silence.

'I want people to be confident to complain, know their rights, and speak up when things go wrong so that the NHS can learn from mistakes and improve services for others.

‘NHS staff should make patients and their loved ones aware of how to complain, point them to available support, and make it absolutely clear that their future care will not be compromised.’

Lara Crisp, Editor of Gransnet, said:

Patients deserve better than this. While we appreciate that services are stretched, communication with patients and their families must be improved. They should feel that their concerns are taken seriously and addressed properly.

'It’s simply not acceptable that over half of people with a concern feel they can’t complain or that it won’t make any difference if they do. Hospital staff need to be supported and enabled to communicate better with patients so that everyone is clear about the complaints procedure and patients are reassured that this will not affect their future care.’

The types of issues respondents experienced included their older relative not being given enough help with their personal care needs, such as going to the bathroom and washing themselves, which affected over 1 in 4 (28%).

Almost 1 in 5 (19%) of those surveyed said that their older relative had not been treated with dignity and respect during their time in hospital.

Read Rob Behren's blog: Gransnet survey results are deeply concerning.

Notes to Editors:

  1. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman provides an independent and impartial complaint handling service for complaints that have not been resolved by the NHS in England and UK government departments. We look into complaints where someone believes there has been injustice or hardship because an organisation has not acted properly or has given a poor service and not put things right. We share findings from our casework to help Parliament scrutinise public service providers and to help drive improvements in public services and complaint handling.
  2. In 2016-17, the ombudsman service handled 31,444 complaints and investigated 4,239 cases.
  3. Gransnet is the busiest social networking site for the over 50s. At its heart is a forum where users debate the hot topics of the day, support each other and share experiences.
  4. The findings were compiled from a survey of 602 Gransnet members which ran on the Gransnet website between 6 February and 14 March 2017.
  5. The survey, on the care and treatment of older people in hospital, was promoted to UK Gransnet and Mumsnet users and on social media encouraging people to register membership. It was open to members who had had an older relative (such as a parent, in-law, sibling, partner or spouse) spend time in hospital in the last 12 months. Given the potential younger age of Gransnet members, the survey was positioned as asking about the care and treatment of an older relative in hospital. Half of those who responded to the survey were under the age of 50. The average age of the older relative referred to in the survey was 79 and 47% (283) of participants said they were referring to a parent.
  6. The survey found that 18% of respondents felt that their older relative’s pain was not adequately controlled.
  7. The full survey results can be found on our website research page.