• Report suggests just one in eight hospital trusts is following law on complaints
  • Sir Robert Francis says report echoes key findings of 2013 Mid Staffs report 
  • Healthwatch urges creation of new body to oversee complaints processes

Sir Robert Francis has said the lack of transparency at many hospitals over complaints handling “seems to echo” findings of his inquiry into the Mid Staffs scandal.

A Healthwatch England report, published today, has found just one in eight hospital trusts appears to be following the law on complaints, and only 38 per cent of NHS hospitals are reporting on any action taken in response to issues raised by patients or loved ones.

The watchdog is calling for a new national organisation — a “complaints standards authority” — to be set up to monitor complaints systems and promote good practice.

Sir Robert, now chair of Healthwatch England, told HSJ in an exclusive interview that the issues highlighted in the Healthwatch report (see attached) “seem to echo what I found at Mid Staffs”.

He said: “There were difficulties with complaints handling and we still seem to have a challenge around transparency.

“Not very many trusts make public what they are doing about the complaints. In order to encourage people to raise their concerns we really need to demonstrate they are being listened to. Information about what complaints are about is still quite vague.

“I don’t think the regulations are hugely demanding. Every well-run organisation is expected to have efficient complaints processes, but it seems to be a challenge for some trusts. If you are not listening to patients about things that have gone wrong or right, you are not going to be seen as a learning organisation.”

Healthwatch found just 12 per cent of hospitals in 2018 were fully compliant with the regulations for publishing complaints, based on a review of standalone complaints reports, annual reports and quality accounts.

The watchdog said hospitals and the NHS need “to look beyond the numbers and response times and focus more on how to effectively demonstrate to patients and the public what has been learnt”.

Openness, transparency and candour across the healthcare system was one of the key recommendations in the inquiry into high mortality rates at Stafford Hospital, which Sir Robert chaired.

He said, since the inquiry’s report in 2013, “there have been huge improvements in terms of the attitude of the system towards quality and safety”.

But since then, an investigation has been launched into maternity failings at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust, where at least 42 babies and three mothers died between 1979 and 2017.

Sir Robert told HSJ “one cannot rule out” another scandal being around the corner, but said: “There’s more chance of it being caught early.”

He added: “It would be helpful if all trusts look at their complaints procedures and information [they] make available to the public. I don’t think organisations set out to be less transparent deliberately.

“We do live in a time where there’s still a blame culture. It’s not hugely surprising some people get a little defensive. I don’t think it’s a strategy of supressing things. It’s an anxiety to ensure what is good is known and trying to get that balance right is a little difficult.”

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