NHS attacked over 'shabby' patient care: Health ombudsman says many complaints about treatment were caused by failures in communication

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FIERCE criticism of the way the National Health Service treats patients and handles complaints - with a warning that the new-style NHS appears to have 'aggravated' some of the failures - came yesterday from William Reid, the health service ombudsman.

In his strongly worded report, Mr Reid said: 'Far too often I have to deplore the treatment of patients which shows disregard for the needs and care of fellow humans. Far too often nothing has been done to manage patient care properly until I have completed an investigation. In cases such as that, those responsible should feel a sense of shame.

'Many . . . complaints . . . have been caused by failures in communication. Some of these failures have been aggravated by splitting health care into many more separate organisations whose staff need more training for their responsibilities. Often staff are ignorant of the advice given by health departments about how to admit patients, how to give them adequate care and how to discharge them at the end of their period in hospital.

'Ignorance, or an omission to put into practice, well thought out guidance can lead to failures to provide the standards of care to which patients are entitled.'

Mr Reid's report was seized on by Margaret Beckett, the acting Labour leader, at Prime Minister's Question Time to demand that the Government drop its NHS changes. John Major said the report would be taken seriously, but the number of patients treated had risen, the quality of care had 'improved immeasurably', and the Government was already consulting on improved complaints procedures.

In many of the record 1,384 complaints that Mr Reid investigated last year, he found 'what can only be regarded as an abrogation of responsibility and neglect of management'. It was 'pitiful and shabby' when NHS authorities 'make out they welcome complaints but then deal woefully with them'.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, conceded that the way complaints were dealt with was 'simply not good enough' but denied the new NHS business culture was to blame. If patients were treated as customers, 'they would be able to complain a great deal better', she said on BBC radio.

John Chawner, chairman of the British Medical Association's consultants' committee, said: 'If complaints are being mishandled, then it is a matter of concern for us all and must be corrected. But this report highlights a concern that we have been expressing for many years that . . . some patients are falling through the NHS safety net because the health service has been split into so many separate organisations.'

Annual Report of the Health Service Commissioner 1993-4; HMSO pounds 12.90.

Nurses are deserting the Government 'in droves', the health union Unison claimed yesterday as it published findings of a national survey. The union said the poll showed a 'catastrophic collapse' in support for the Conservatives since the 1992 general election and there was 'overwhelming' rejection of National Health Service changes.

Almost 700,000 patients have been removed from dentists' National Health Service registers, forcing them to take out private dental insurance or find another dentist since the Government reduced NHS fees two years ago, writes Rosie Waterhouse.

Yesterday David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, said an analysis of Department of Health statistics showed 687,765 patients were de-registered by their dentists since July 1992 when the Government cut dental fees were cut by 7 per cent.

Dentists took the action of de-registering patients to protest at the cut in NHS fees. If patients took out private dental insurance the dentist could charge more.