Ombudsman paints stark picture of NHS complaint handling and launches public consultation to drive improvement

Today, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman presented a report to Parliament painting a raw picture of an NHS complaints system in urgent need of reform and investment.

Drawing on the experiences of members of the public and NHS staff, advocacy groups, regulators and hundreds of his own investigations, the report finds that:

  • there is inconsistency in complaint handling across the NHS, leading to variable outcomes for people who complain
  • investigations are often carried out by staff who have limited or no training, or who lack appropriate support – putting them under significant pressure
  • organisations too often see complaints negatively, which leaves complaints staff feeling they are not valued or supported and lacking the resources to carry out their role effectively. 

These weaknesses can lead to poor experiences for those who raise concerns and to vital learning on patient safety being missed.

There is widespread support in the health sector for tackling this through a ‘Complaint Standards Framework’ – an approach pioneered in Scotland and now being adopted in other countries. The Government has so far failed to give PHSO the statutory powers to deliver this for the UK wide public services, or the NHS in England, despite the Ombudsman calling for it more than 3 years ago when he took up his role. This means that patients and their families in England lack the certainty offered by the statutory standards that are in place in Scotland and elsewhere.

Recognising the urgency of the current situation, a number of key organisations have now joined with PHSO to develop a voluntary approach - a draft non-statutory framework to promote consistent, high quality complaint handling in the NHS. Today these bodies are launching a public consultation on what the final version should include.

Ombudsman Rob Behrens, said:

'The Cumberlege review highlights the devastating consequences of failing to listen to patients’ concerns. The research we publish today strongly suggests that the current complaints system is not meeting the needs of either the public or the staff that work in it. 

'We need to act now. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, compassionate and consistent complaint handling is needed more than ever'.

The Ombudsman also intends to develop complaint standards that apply to all UK Government bodies and their agencies that are within his remit. He has focused initially on the NHS, however, given the consistent feedback he has received since taking office in 2017 from both patients and frontline staff about the lack of consistency and support in the current system.

The Ombudsman went on to say that:

'The seriousness of the current situation is reflected in the significant support we have received from across the health sector in developing the draft standards.

'It is vital that we now listen to a wide range of perspectives and I encourage anyone with an interest – health sector professionals and general public alike - to have their say'.