Why don’t UK citizens complain about care services when things go wrong?

As the All Party Parliamentary Group on Health meets to discuss patient complaints today, new poll reveals half of people who experience poor care want to complain but far fewer go on to do so.
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According to a poll of 6,500 people across five countries - the UK, US, Australia, France and Germany – people in the United Kingdom are the most likely to say they would write a formal letter of complaint following a bad experience with a health service.

Yet, the data also indicates that UK citizens are the least likely to complain in practice.

International attitudes

When asked hypothetically what they would do following a poor experience with a health service such as doctor, surgeon or dentist, just under half of UK respondents (45 per cent) said they would report it formally in writing compared to 30 per cent in the USA and Australia, 26 per cent in France and 23 per cent in Germany.

This suggests we should be 50 per cent more likely to raise our concerns formally than those from the US and Australia, and almost twice as likely as the French and Germans.

Yet according to the survey, only a fifth of Brits (20 per cent) who experienced an incident of poor care wrote a letter of complaint. The means the number of those who actually complain is just 43 per cent of the number who say they will. This compares with a rate of 55% in the United States, 49% in France, 47% in Germany and 45% in Australia.

Barriers to making a complaint

The polling backs up previous data which indicates that an estimated half a million incidents of poor care went unreported last year alone.

There is clearly an appetite to complain when things go wrong, but certain factors are stopping people raising their concerns formally.

“It almost feels like people are being strung along until they gave up.”

Our ‘Suffering in Silence’ report found that people find the complaints system complex and confusing and they often lack confidence that their complaint will be resolved.

Seven point reform plan:

Our Chair Anna Bradley will today outline to MPs of the All Party Health Group a seven point action plan to help create a truly compassionate and responsive complaints system in England

According to new polling of more than 6,500 people across five countries - the UK, US, Australia, France and Germany - the Brits come out on top as the most likely to say they would complain following a bad experience at the doctors.

Sadly, this isn’t translating in to people actually raising their concerns when things do go wrong, with an estimated half a million unreported incidents of poor care last year alone.

What we have been hearing from patients and their families about how poorly their complaints were being handled for the past three years demonstrates that this is not because the Brits are a nation of ‘grumblers’ but rather that it is simply far too hard to raise concerns.

We have gathered a wealth of evidence highlighting what needs to change. It is clear there needs to be change that removes the barriers to complaining and ensure everyone has the opportunity to have their concerns heard and addressed.

Today we are presenting our seven point action plan for reform to the All Party Health Group, calling for their support to help create an effective and compassionate complaints system that both gives patients what they need and ensures the NHS and social care services can learn from their mistakes.

7 Step plan for reform

  1. Make it easier for everyone to complain - by giving one national organisation responsibility for providing patients and the public with improved information and education about how to raise concerns.
  2. Create a single, properly funded complaints advocacy service - provided under the Healthwatch banner which would provide users of both the NHS and social care with the same level of support wherever they live in the country.
  3. Drive up the quality of complaints handling - using the NHS constitution and complaints regulations to clearly set out people's right to complain and what they should expect in response.
  4. Require every organisation involved in complaints handling to ensure people's complaints reach the right destination - removing the burden currently placed on patients to pursue their complaint.
  5. Establish clear responsibility for capturing system-wide learning from complaints - identifying trends and ensuring national policy change properly addresses concerns.
  6. Make it mandatory for every complaint, regardless of how it is made or which service it is about, to be recorded and reported to the HSCIC - enabling the system to track progress through a national measure of consumer experience of the complaints process.
  7. Department of Health to conduct a review of the whole complaints landscape - consider simplification and streamlining of processes across the 70 plus organisations involved.

Next steps

We welcomed the announcement of the Government’s Draft Public Services Ombudsman Bill in the Queen’s Speech. We believe this provides an opportunity to accelerate the process of reforming the complaints system and transform the experience of consumers who have been let down by the system.