STANDARDS Healthcare Commission beset by unresolved complaints

Published: 30/06/2005, Volume II5, No. 5962 Page 8

New standards are being developed to force NHS trusts to deal with complaints more effectively as record numbers of cases continue to flood into the Healthcare Commission.

Pressure on the commission is growing, with the number of unresolved complaints hitting more than 4,700 last month compared with 3,700 in February. One in three of these has not been closed within the commission's six-month deadline - compared with one in five last month.

But the commission, responsible for reviewing complaints the NHS cannot resolve, is having to send more than a quarter back to trusts because they have not been dealt with properly.

Discussions are under way with the Department of Health and health service ombudsman Ann Abraham about a core standard on complaints that would affect trusts' annual ratings if they failed to meet it.

Ms Abraham - the final resort for patients who are unhappy about how their complaints have been handled - said a 'culture change' was needed at a local level.

'I have spoken to [NHS chief executive Sir] Nigel Crisp and he has agreed that we should work with the DoH and the Healthcare Commission to produce a new core standard so I look forward to seeing that appearing before the end of the year, ' she told HSJ.

'If complaints handling becomes part of the performance standard that the Healthcare Commission inspects against and at the same time the commission and the Department [of Health] support trusts in changing these behaviours - putting in training and leadership in making complaints handling a priority at local level - We have got a real chance of turning this thing around.' Healthcare Commission head of operational development Marcia Fry said the current core standard on complaints focused on processes like ensuring that letters responding to complainants were sent out in time.

The new standard - which could be in place for the 2006-07 ratings - would concentrate on 'the outcomes for patients that we all want to see'.

'It is really about the leadership given to complaints handling, the importance attached to it and the seniority of the people who deal with it, ' she said.

'Rather than it being about signing a letter off and ticking a box it will be: 'Have I thought about what this complaint is about for the complainant?' and the best way of answering that and giving an explanation and apology if it is warranted.' The commission intends to employ a private company for longterm help in reducing the backlog.

Ann Abraham is the subject of the HSJ Interview in next week's HSJ.