Complaints about hospitals have fallen for only the second time since the new NHS complaints system was introduced four years ago.

The number of written grievances fell 3 per cent to 86,000 between 199798 and 1998-99. The total number of complaints has fallen by 8 per cent since procedures were overhauled in 1996.

But protests about family health services went up by 2 per cent.

Complaints about GPs and dentists have risen by 5 per cent over the whole period, to just over 38,000.

Local procedures appear to be working in hospitals and community services, where 63 per cent of cases were resolved locally within the target period of four weeks. Independent reviews are not working as quickly. Just over 20 per cent of reviews of hospital complaints were resolved by the sixmonth target.

A British Medical Association spokesperson said there were 300 million 'patient contacts' with GPs every year. Only 38,857 complaints in total were made about family doctors and dentists in 1998-99.

Handling Complaints: monitoring the NHS complaints procedures, England, 1998-9.