As new NHS organisations formally take on their responsibilities, at the Health Ombudsman service we are also beginning a new phase, with the roll out of our new strategy and changes to the way we will handle complaints.
Our vision is to make sure that complaints make a real difference ― to public sector health organisations, GPs, dentists and others, as well as individuals. The public have told us they want to be confident that complaining about public services is straightforward and fair. They also want the NHS and those who provide services to learn from complaints and use them to improve the service they provide to everyone.
Our four key objectives over the next few years are:
- to make it easier for people to find and use our service
- to investigate more complaints and help more people
- to use what we learn to help others make public services better ― sharing information about what went wrong so that mistakes can be avoided in the future
- to lead the way to make the complaints system better.
We’ve already started to put this into practice. In April, we embarked on a new approach to our work. From now on, we will be investigating more complaints and sharing more information with the NHS and other public organisations so that they can benefit from more feedback about complaints at an earlier stage in the process.
Under the new plans, the starting point will be that once a complaint meets some basic tests, it will usually be investigated. This means we will be investigating thousands more cases each year, sharing the learning from these investigations and publishing summaries of more cases. We will also be automatically investigating any cases brought to us concerning unavoidable deaths.
What this means for the NHS and for organisations that provide NHS-funded services is that they will get feedback about more cases and have more access to information about cases showing where a complaint has led to substantial improvements. But we still want complaints to be resolved locally wherever possible. By sharing more of the learning from complaints that do come to us, we will help organisations get better at resolving the complaints themselves.
Just one example shows how this can happen. When a disabled man (Mr T) with a rare, potentially life-threatening spinal condition called autonomic dysreflexia (AD) was rushed to hospital in an emergency, he tried to explain to the paramedics and triage nurses about his condition and why it needed treating urgently. But his pleas fell on deaf ears as none of the staff were familiar with AD. He only received treatment from a doctor after a worrying two-hour wait when he could have died.
When Mr T brought the complaint to us, we were able to resolve the issue without the need for a formal investigation. Following our intervention, both the hospital and ambulance trusts met Mr T to discuss how to raise awareness of AD and were able to put his advice into practice, so that when another person with a spinal condition was admitted to hospital, staff asked whether the patient had AD. This was exactly the outcome Mr T wanted.
The announcement of a review of NHS complaints handling, led by Ann Clwyd MP and Professor Tricia Hart, is timely and welcome. We will be working closely with both of them, along with government ministers, regulators and other partners by providing evidence from our own case work. As part of this work, we will be producing a critique of complaint handling in the NHS, which will be followed by research on what constitutes good practice.
Our mission is to make public services better and achieve more impact for more people. We can all work together to make this happen.
Dame Julie Mellor is the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman