Safety lapses top patients' list of complaints

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Safety lapses in clinical care that put 3,500 patients at risk are the commonest cause of unresolved complaints in the NHS but trusts are doing too little to learn from them, a report says today.

Almost 100,000 complaints are made by patients each year, of which roughly 8,000 are sent for independent review by the Healthcare Commission, the NHS inspectorate, when patients are dissatisfied with the response from their local NHS trust.

In its first report on 16,000 complaints dealt with over two years since 2004, the commission says 22 per cent (3,520) were about safety such as a mix-up over names leading to a child having a wrong injection and mistakes in treating a woman with a haemorrhage following childbirth who nearly died.

More than half of all complaints in hospitals were about poor care surrounding a death, where families were shown the wrong body in the mortuary or treated abrasively or insensitively.

One in six complaints about family doctors was from patients removed from GPs' lists without warning or explanation.

Poor quality meals, inadequate nursing care, dirty wards and patients discharged without notice were also on the list of complaints. In all, 70 per cent of the complaints reviewed by the commission were found in favour of the patient.

Anna Walker, the chief executive, said: "Complaints represent the raw feelings of patients and the NHS must listen and learn from them. At the centre of each one is an individual who often has genuinely suffered. Too often this was not just because of what went wrong but because of the way people were dealt with."

The report had revealed areas that needed "systematic improvement across the NHS," she said. "Care around death and removal of patients from GPs lists are areas we will seriously follow up."

The worst performing trust for handling complaints was named in the report as Chesterfield Royal Hospital, where almost two thirds of complaints sent to the commission for review were referred back because they had been inadequately dealt with at local level.

The commission announced a national audit of complaints handling in 50 trusts, including the worst 10 and the best 10.

But it came in for criticism itself over delays in clearing a backlog of work from a higher than expected volume of requests from patients for independent review. The report says 30 per cent of cases received in June last year were not yet resolved but it expected to hit its target of closing 95 per cent of cases within 12 months by next summer.

Lord Hunt of King's Heath, the Health minister, said "It is regrettable that some people have had to wait a long time for a response to their complaint. [The commission] need to do more to tackle the oldest complaints, and they now have a plan in place that should enable them to do this."

The charity Age Concern said the report revealed a "distressing picture of the safety and dignity of patients being ignored".

The Royal College of Nursing blamed funding cuts. Dr Peter Carter, the general secretary of the RCN, said: "Nurses desperately want to be able to give the standards of care they were trained to give but more than anything they need to be given the time to care."

"At a time when trusts up and down the country are cutting posts and freezing recruitment and nurses are under increasing pressure, time is a commodity in short supply."

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