If you went out for a meal and weren’t satisfied or bought a faulty product, you might write a letter of complaint; it’s no surprise that your experience of the NHS should be any different. Recent research by the Health and Social Care Information Centre shows that the number of complaints put in writing to the NHS has increased by 8% from last year. From April 2011 to March 2012 the NHS received on average at least 3000 written complaints a week from patients and their families. The information was provided by two sources – firstly NHS hospitals and community health services and secondly family health services, which covers GPs and dental services – and looked at which group of practitioners was complained about and the reason for the complaint.
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For NHS hospitals and community health services nearly 46% of complaints related to the medical profession – comprising hospital doctors and surgeons; the next complained about group, representing 22% of complaints, were nurses, midwives and health visitors. Both these percentages were similar to those from the year before. For family health services, 55,000 complaints relating to GPs and dentists were received, which was up 8% on the previous year. In terms of what the complaints were related to across the NHS, by far the largest at nearly 50,000 were those regarding “all aspects of clinical treatment”, followed by over 12,000 about “attitude of staff” and around 10,000 for “communication to patient”.
Not a true reflection
While it is seemingly worrying about the significant increase in the number of written complaints that the NHS has received in the last year, the increase in figures could perhaps be explained by the way that the data has been collected. This is indeed the first year that all NHS organisations have submitted information relating to the complaints that they have received; 23 NHS Foundation Trusts that provided data this year had not done so in the previous year. If this was taken into account, the 501 NHS organisations – both hospitals and Primary Care Trusts – that had given in figures relating to complaints across both years, it would have shown only a 1% increase in written complaints. However, it seems that of the 151 Primary Care Trusts across the country, there were 36 this year that submitted incomplete information or none at all, which compared to only 29 in the previous year. It is difficult to know whether no information was submitted due to there having been no complaints or failure by the Primary Care Trusts to do so. In future years a truer reflection of the situation should be gleaned, as Foundation Trusts will be included from now on. However, full submission by Primary Care Trusts will be needed to complete the picture. There still needs to be the consideration that some patients will choose not to complain, either because they feel that their concerns will not be taken seriously or that this will have an impact on their treatment, so figures may well be an under-representation of patient feeling.
The benefits of complaints
It has been suggested that patient dissatisfaction is not necessarily a bad thing. Patients choosing to engage with the NHS to air their views show that they have faith in the complaints system, that they feel they will be listened to and corrective action taken. The NHS after all encourages patients to let them know about their experiences, both positive and negative, so that they can constantly try to make improvements and ensure that a high quality and safe service continues to be provided. Reforms to NHS services will only make it easier for patients to complain through Health Watch, which will fight the cause for patients. However, many patients must already be happy with the care they receive, as the proportion of complaints compared to the number of patients treated overall – one million in every 36 hour period – remains very small.