Health ombudsman criticises 'insincere apologies and unclear explanations' over NHS mistakes

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Complaints to the NHS about the failure of doctors, nurses or managers to admit mistakes or apologise when things go wrong have leapt by 50 per cent in a year. Almost four out of five were upheld.

A report by the health service ombudsman, Dame Julie Mellor, published today, says “careless communication, insincere apologies and unclear explanations” are unacceptable.

“A poor response to a complaint can add to the problems of someone who is unwell, struggling to take care of others or grieving. The NHS needs to get better at listening to patients and their families and responding to their concerns.”

Almost four out of five of the complaints about the NHS’s failure to acknowledge its mistakes were upheld. “Each complaint that is not fully addressed is a missed opportunity for the NHS to improve,” the report says.

Common problems with NHS responses were the use of equivocal or technical language, getting facts wrong and the use of false apologies such as “I’m sorry you feel the care wasn’t good enough.”

In one case a man with malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, was misdiagnosed by his GP practice six times but was unable to get the practice to acknowledge their failings when he complained.

In another case, a man who expressed anxiety about having a general anaesthetic before an operation was told by the surgeon he was being a “baby” and patted on the chest. When he complained about being patronised he did not get a full apology until the ombudsman intervened.

 The ombudsman also found a sharp 16 per cent increase in cases of GPs unfairly striking patients off their list, despite issuing a warning about the practice a year ago.

GPs are expected to follow British Medical Association guidance on dealing with “difficult” patients by warning them their behaviour is putting them at risk of removal, setting out clearly what is going wrong (eg missing appointments without cancelling) and explaining what they must do to avoid removal.

  The report says that GPs’ “failure to improve” in this area “gives us wider concerns” that as GPs take on wider responsibilities for commissioning care under the Health and Social Care Act their complaint handling may suffer.

In all, the NHS received 150,000 complaints in 2011-12, up 1.3 per cent on the previous year. Most complaints were made in London (40 per 100,000 inhabitants), and fewest in the north east (21 per 100,000).

The most complained about NHS organisation was Barking, Havering and Redbridge  University Hospitals NHS Trust, which was the subject of a highly critical report from the NHS watchdog, the Care Quality Commission in October last year. It found poor care in the maternity department, abusive and unprofessional behaviour from staff and long waits and lack of staff in A&E.

Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter said: “The vast majority of NHS patients are happy with the care they receive, but if things go wrong, some NHS organisations respond to complaints better than others. This is something that the NHS must improve.