Poor communication leads to thousands of complaints being referred to the health service ombudsman unnecessarily, a review of complaints handling in the NHS has concluded.

The report analysed the 15,066 complaints received by the ombudsman about the NHS in 2010-11. It found that in 62 per cent of these cases the complainant had not completed the complaints procedure with the NHS organisation in question while in 22 per cent of cases the ombudsman was satisfied there was no case to answer or the NHS organisation had already put things right.

Poor explanation and failure to acknowledge mistakes were the biggest reasons given for complainants being unhappy with the way complaints were handled and contacting the ombudsman.

Ombudsman Ann Abraham said: “While these matters may seem insignificant alongside complex clinical judgments and treatment, they contribute to a patient’s overall experience of NHS care.

“What is more, the escalation of such small, everyday incidents represents a hidden cost, adding to the burden on clinical practitioners and taking up time for health service managers, while causing added difficulty for people struggling with illness or caring responsibilities.”

NHS Confederation deputy director of policy Jo Webber said the high proportion of complaints referred to the ombudsman unnecessarily suggested the NHS was “missing opportunities to resolve things at an early stage”.

“It also suggests that a lot of effort could be saved if we did more to communicate how people can raise their concerns,” she added.

Complaints about hospitals accounted for the highest proportion of complaints received, at 46 per cent of the total, followed by primary care trusts at 18 per cent and GPs at 17 per cent.

In 2010-11, 21 per cent of all complaints about GPs investigated by the ombudsman were about the removal of patients from practice lists, a rise of six percentage points on the previous year. In one case, a terminally ill woman was removed from her GP’s list following a dispute between the practice and her daughter, a registered nurse. On another occassion a whole family removed following a few angry words.

Ms Abraham said: “As GPs prepare for the increased commissioning responsibilities outlined in the Government’s health reforms, it is essential that they get the basics of communication right.”