Stop seeing complaints as an affront, NHS told

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Public Policy Editor

Government aspirations to improve the handling of NHS complaints - which reached a record level last year - are so much "hot air" unless they are matched by improved performance, William Reid, the NHS Ombudsman, said yesterday.

More than 1,780 new complaints - a 29 per cent rise - were received last year, Mr Reid said in his annual report. And he is finding proven many more complaints about the way complaints are handled - despite government moves to invite criticisms and ensure they are dealt with properly.

Mr Reid said: "If 65 per cent of complaints about handling were upheld by me in 1989/90, and 91 per cent in 1994/95, aspirations about more effective complaints handling are hot air. They need to be matched now by performance."

Last year, he said, "I again encountered very lax, or superficial, involvement of some chief executives and of some non-executive members of trust boards in the monitoring of performance of complaints handling."

The sharp rise in complaints did not necessarily indicate a deteriorating service, Mr Reid said. It was more likely that patients had higher expectations.

But, he added: "It will help if staff in all professions look upon complaints not as a personal affront but as a valuable contribution to audit and improvement of services."

Complaints against medical staff are also on the increase at a time when he is to be given new powers to investigate clinical complaints, and not just those involving maladministration.

The focus on efficiency and hitting targets had hardened the attitudes of some staff, he suggested, many of whom were working "under conditions of great stress and unremitting pressure". Mr Reid said: "There is a great deal of talk throughout the NHS of efficiency, standards and meeting patients' demands. It is terribly important for staff to remember at the same time that they are dealing with life and death. They must not become case-hardened and must remember the trauma," for patients for whom admission "is a unique occasion".

Alan Langlands, the NHS chief executive, said the report made "salutary reading". He has written to all trusts drawing attention in particular to a string of cases involving bereavement which Mr Reid highlighted yesterday. "Failures of tact and care at times like these are inexcusable in a service which takes pride in achieving excellence in patient care and in working in partnership with relatives and carers," he said.

Just over 500 grievances were investigated last year, the Ombudsman upholding 306 of them. Both complaints and investigations have doubled in five years. Yet some hospitals, he said, still made no reference to his powers of investigation in their local complaints leaflets.

tAnnual Report of the Health Service Commissioner 1994/95; HMSO; pounds 14.30.