Complaints over NHS treatment increase by 20%

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The Independent Online
COMPLAINTS made to the National Health Service ombudsman reached their highest level last year with a rise of almost 20 per cent on the figure for 1990-91, according to his annual report published yesterday.

A total of 1,176 complaints were made in 1991-92 compared with 990 the previous year. Grievances about doctors and nurses increased to 65 per cent of all those investigated - up 10 per cent - and almost half were upheld.

William Reid, who has a small full-time staff of researchers, is only allowed to investigate cases of maladministration, not to question clinical judgements. The service is free to the complainant. He cannot punish a health authority, other than by publicising its mistakes, but he can recommend that it makes an ex-gratia payment.

Mr Reid said that the overall increase was due to growing public awareness of how to complain. 'The NHS has attracted considerable public attention during the past 12 months, which included a general election,' he said in his report. The launch of the Patient's Charter, with its emphasis on the improvement of services generally, had played a part, but he added that patients were still sometimes worried that they would be victimised if they complained to him.

A recurring theme among the complaints was that of a failure to keep a proper check on a patient's progress. 'Staff have to contend with competing claims on their time, calling for difficult clinical decisions, but even so there have been cases this year where the attention given fell short by any reasonable standards of what it should have been.'

In one case a woman was left lying unattended in the casualty department of a hospital for two hours before she died. She had been dead for 20 minutes before the hospital staff realised. They had expected the woman's relatives to let them know how she was, but the relatives understood they were not allowed to stay in the cubicle where she was lying.

A woman dying of cancer was moved every Friday to a different bed because her surgical ward was closed at weekends to save money. Management had not considered the implications for long-stay patients. Among other cases highlighted in Mr Reid's report were those of a young girl being charged unlawfully for an appliance to help her walk, by health chiefs trying to save money, and of a paediatrician who failed to follow procedures for dealing with suspected child sex abuse, causing avoidable distress to parents.

'Good health care depends on partnership and trust between those who provide and those who use the service. Users of the service can see things very differently from those who provide it,' Mr Reid said.

The report shows London and the Home Counties had the most complaints with 428. Next was the North Western region with 87, or 7.5 per cent of complaints overall, followed by the West Midlands with 86 (7.4 per cent).

Wessex had 58 complaints (4.9 per cent); Trent and South Western 53 each (4.5 per cent each); Northern 45 (3.8 per cent); East Anglia 40 (3.4 per cent) and Oxford 31 (2.6 per cent). Scotland had 125 complaints (10.6 per cent) and Wales 79 (6.7 per cent).