Published: 27/06/2002, Volume II2, No. 5811 Page 8

Health service ombudsman Sir Michael Buckley has hit out at the Department of Health for failing to properly consult his office over the proposed changes in complaints procedures.

Speaking exclusively to HSJ as he launched the last annual report before he retires, he said: 'I have found it odd we have had to push quite hard to get consulted about the complaints procedure, about which I think we know quite a lot.'

Sir Michael, who retires from his post this year, wants the government to introduce stricter time limits on local resolution of complaints and speedier access to his department where it was appropriate. But he was also critical of the defensive way in which the NHS handled complaints.

Health service managers need to create a culture that is open and up-front, rather than going on the defensive when a patient complains, he said.

He also wants managers to take a tougher line with clinicians.

'With clinical matters the substance of what is said will have to come from clinicians, but managers can help by thinking hard about what is the best way of communication and by saying to clinicians if they do not think they are getting through to a complainant.

'If you could make communications perfect, you would deal with at least 90 per cent of complaints, ' he said. 'I find that complaints about care are often aggravated by failings in the way in which they were managed locally. Sometimes this results from simple failures to apply the NHS complaints procedure properly.'

On the matter of consultation on the complaints procedures, the Department of Health said: 'We carried out an extensive exercise on the NHS complaints procedure in September and October last year, involving the complete range of interested parties - NHS organisations, patient representative groups, voluntary organisations, etc. The list, of course, included the health service ombudsman and he submitted a detailed response.'

The ombudsman's latest report, for 2001-02, shows a 3 per cent increase in complaints, from 2,595 to 2,660, of which 204 were investigated.Once more, the overriding concern is the poor communication between various members of staff, patients and their families.

'Making clear clinical notes, referring to them at the relevant time, and agreeing on a lead communicator when it is obvious that lines could get crossed will help all concerned, ' he says in his report.

He also singles out accident and emergency departments, where junior staff are often left to make difficult decisions without adequate support or supervision. In one case, a woman who had drunk bleach and slashed her wrists arrived at hospital with a note saying she refused treatment. Neither of the doctors on duty sought the advice of someone more senior.

The woman was given milk and antibiotics but died the next day.

www. ombudsman. org. uk See news focus, page 20