A government-commissioned report into the way the NHS handles complaints has called for an overhaul of the current system, referring to a “decade of failure”.
The independent report chaired by Labour MP Ann Clwyd and Tricia Hart, chief executive of South Tees Hospitals Foundation Trust, recommends frontline staff should be properly trained in how to handle complaints. This is because many organisations say junior staff are currently left to handle complaints with little or no training.
The review recommends boards should take a lead in scrutinising complaints on a monthly basis and that chief executives should take personal responsibility for looking into and signing off complaints. Trusts should also publish an annual complaints report which is made readily available to the public in plain English.
Feedback from the 2,500 people who responded to the review’s call for evidence indicated there was concern about the independence of the complaints process. Often staff members were investigating complaints about fellow colleagues and complainants felt they were kept in the dark over the investigation’s progress.
The government will respond to the report’s recommendation in November. However, a number of major health organisations have already signed up to take action to implement change before the government formally responds.
The Royal College of Nursing, Health Education England, the General Medical Council, Monitor, Care Quality Commission, HealthWatch England and NHS England among others have agreed to begin work on 30 actions to help improve the health service’s complaints system. The review urges that funding is given to these organisations to help them produce a coordinated approach to complaints procedures.
The review panel considered the option of recommending a new complaints reform body but decided to defer this because they were satisfied that chief inspector of hospitals Sir Mike Richards sees complaints handling as a central part of his work. Sir Mike has already indicated that patient complaints should make up a key part of trusts’ inspection process.
There is also a recommendation that the CQC develops a localised and accountable second tier complaints review system which is capable of analysing and detecting local trends.
A rebranding of the NHS Complaints Advocacy Service should take place to make it more independent, according to the review’s recommendations. The funding for the service should be protected and the service should be linked to local HealthWatch groups.
Ms Clwyd said: “We have given patients and their families a voice in this report, and their message to the NHS on complaints is clear. The days of delay, deny, and defend must end, and hospitals must become open, learning organisations. Our proposals put patients firmly into the driving seat at every level as never before, and we now expect to see progress within 12 months’ time.”
Professor Hart added: “We need a fundamental change in culture and we need transparency so that when things go wrong improvements are made to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But most of all we need action – and that is what sets today’s report apart. Leaders from across the NHS have signed up to concrete actions to start to do better on complaints.
In response, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “We saw in Mid Staffs how badly things go wrong when patients and families’ complaints aren’t taken seriously. I want to see a complete transformation in hospitals’ approach to complaints, so that they become valued as vital learning tools. There can be no place for closing ranks or covering backs when patient safety is at stake.”