NHS complaints procedure: Your rights and how to complain

28 Jan 2020 | Stephanie Prior

The NHS Constitution is a document written by the Government that lays out the core principles and values of the NHS in England. It sets out the rights of patients and staff and the responsibilities that the public, patients and staff owe to one another. The aim is to ensure that the NHS operates fairly and effectively.

The NHS Constitution supports feedback and complaints

The Constitution also acknowledges that the NHS is not perfect and that sometimes things can go wrong. To this end the Constitution provides information on how to make a complaint about NHS services, care and treatment and what to expect when making a complaint.[1] In general terms:

  • You can complain verbally or in writing.
  • You have the right to have your complaint acknowledged quickly and explored thoroughly, and then to be informed of the outcome.
  • You should be treated fairly and with respect.
  • Your care will be not be adversely affected because of making a complaint.
  • You should be afforded the opportunity to discuss your complaint with a complaints manager and expect appropriate action to be taken.
  • Finally, if you have been harmed by negligence, you have the right to claim compensation.

Who can make a complaint about the NHS?

Anyone who has received services from the NHS and has been affected by an action, omission or decision made by the NHS can make a complaint. You can also complain on behalf of someone who has died, someone who is unable to make the complaint due to mental or physical incapacity, or if the person affected is a child or is an adult but has asked you in writing to act for them. Generally, a person under 18 years old can make a complaint on their own behalf, if they have capacity to do so.

There is a time limit

It is generally held that complaints should be made within 12 months of the event, or within 12 months of you finding out about the problem. The time limit means that you should start the complaints process as soon as possible.

The first port of call

Once an issue comes to light it is within everyone’s best interests to have it resolved as soon as possible. So, your first port of call should be to someone directly involved – either the NHS staff member concerned, or if that is not possible or helpful, the person in charge, such as the ward manager or practice manager. If your complaint is not dealt with to your satisfaction or if it is a problem that cannot be easily solved right away, you should consider following the formal NHS complaints procedure.

Step 1 of the NHS complaints procedure: local resolution

NHS services are provided in a wide variety of settings and by a wide variety of staff including GPs, hospitals, dentists, pharmacists, district nurses, and public health organisations. If you have cause to complain about the service you received from the NHS there are two main routes that you can take: you can either complain to the healthcare provider, or the commissioner of the healthcare service that you received. Your first step should be to obtain a copy of the organisation’s complaint procedure, which will advise you the best way to get your complaint handled appropriately and in a timely fashion.

To support your formal complaint, it is a good idea to keep records: dates, times, people you have spoken to. Have a clear idea who or what your complaint is about and what you would like done to help resolve the issue.

If you are not sure or not confident in proceeding alone, you can get support from the NHS Advocacy Service. This support is free, independent and completely confidential.

Step 2 of the NHS complaints procedure: Health Service Ombudsman

If your complaint has not been dealt with to your satisfaction with local resolution, you are entitled to complain to the Health Service Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is independent from the NHS and it will cost you nothing to make a complaint there.

You will complete a form which provides the Ombudsman with all the information required. You will give details on what happened and who was involved and the impact of the event. You should also include copies of any relevant documents with the form and give an indication of what you hope to achieve with your complaint: this could include receiving an apology, changing practice to avoid a similar problem happening again, an investigation and explanation of what happened and why it happened, or any other outcome you feel would help.

Financial compensation for NHS clinical negligence

No matter the outcome of the NHS complaints procedure, financial compensation is only available through legal action. In order to claim compensation, you should speak to a solicitor as soon as possible, as there is usually a time limit of 3 years. However, the official NHS complaint process should be concluded before a claim for negligence is made, as the complaint response may help determine if negligence was a factor.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-nhs-constitution-for-england

Blog post written by Stephanie Prior, Head of Clinical Negligence team.

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