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Renewed efforts required to create compassionate complaints system

14/10/14

Three out of five patients and care users that complain about receiving poor treatment feel that the system is failing to address their concerns – not taking their cases seriously, ignoring them or in many cases bouncing them around the system until they give up.*

Using the views and experiences of patients and their families, we are today publishing the findings of our investigation into the utterly bewildering and largely ineffective complaints system in health and social care. See coverage in the Daily Mail, Daily Express, ITV News and ITV Good Morning Britain

Whilst there has been significant work at a system level to improve processes, overwhelmingly the public says that on the ground hospitals, GPs and care homes are still failing to grasp fundamental principles about how to deal with those they have let down.

NHS and local authority red tape is still making it too difficult for people to complain, there is not enough independent advice and support out there to help those in need and, above all, the public is given little incentive to come forward about their experiences.

  • Just 1 in 5 said they only had to complain once before someone listened to them 
  • Fewer than 1 in 10 was provided with formal support to make a complaint
  • Well over 80 per cent of people say they would be more willing to complain if they could see it making a difference – e.g. informing inspections or improving services

If the system is serious about using complaints to drive improvement then it must first deal with the human impact of what happens when things go wrong. It must be compassionate, responsive, supportive and enable the system to publicly demonstrate that it has learnt from its mistakes.

Ahead of the Secretary of State’s ‘Hard Truths: One Year On’ report, expected later this year, our report outlines the case for reform of the complaints system including calling for cross-party support and recognition that the changes needed are of such significance as to require legislative time following the next election.

The report also contains a list of relatively simple and straightforward changes to complaints handling developed from conversations with patients, care users and the public, that could be implemented now and ensure cases are dealt with more empathetically and effectively for those currently experiencing the complaints ‘nightmare’.

In August we revealed that, for a second year in a row, almost two thirds of those that receive poor care didn’t report their experience or make a complaint. This is because it was either too confusing, they felt they wouldn’t be taken seriously or didn’t feel it would make any difference.

As a result, we estimate at least 250,000 incidents of poor care went unreported in the NHS in 2013/14.** However, the total number of ‘missing complaints’ across the whole of health and social care is likely to be much higher, although impossible to calculate as there is currently no national level oversight of complaints raised with local authorities about social care services.

Our Chair, Anna Bradley said:

“Complaining about poor care is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially for those who are suffering either physically or emotionally as a result of the way they have been treated by a hospital or care home.

“The professionals and policy makers cannot look on complaints merely as raw intelligence about performance. They need to be compassionate and supportive of those that have been let down.

“There is already universal support for the need to improve complaints handling and the public has helped us highlight some quick wins for the system. But having examined the experiences of thousands of patients, it is clear that the problem goes much deeper than a bit of tinkering with what we already have.

“We are calling for legislative time to be dedicated to this issue as soon as possible following the election, with the aim of creating a new, streamlined and genuinely responsive system that will give people what they want and ultimately provide the system with the insight to learn from its mistakes.”

Notes to Editors

Healthwatch England is the independent consumer champion for health and social care in England. The organisation has independent statutory powers, as stated in the Health and Social Care Act 2012, to ensure the consumers' voice is heard and best practice is delivered in health and social care nationally. Healthwatch is also focused on providing leadership, guidance and support to the development of the network of 148 local Healthwatch that launched in April 2013. 

Research for the ‘Suffering in Silence’ report included two national YouGov polls, online and telephone interviews with 403 people conducted by Healthwatch England, and two in-depth focus groups in Manchester and London with 50 members of the public in attendance at each.

* All figures obtained through a YouGov survey of 1676 adults across England. Fieldwork was undertaken between 20th - 21st August 2014. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all English adults (aged 18+).

** There were 162,019 complaints recorded by the Health and Social Care Information Centre for NHS services in 2012/13 and 174,872 in 2013/14. Yet research by Healthwatch England identified that 61 per cent of those who experience poor care, or witnessed a friend or relative receive unacceptable treatment, did nothing to report it. If all these cases had reported their experiences then Healthwatch England calculated there would have been an additional 526,932 complaints over the last two years.

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