NHS fails to communicate effectively with patients and families, warns Ombudsman

A significant rise in the number of complaints where the NHS has failed to provide an adequate remedy or proper apology when things have gone wrong is highlighted in a new report published by the Health Service Ombudsman today (9 November 2012).

In one case seen by the Ombudsman, a bereaved daughter was told, ‘Death is rarely an ideal situation for anyone’ and that ‘Truth be told your mother probably said her goodbyes long before the final moments’.

The report, Listening and learning, which gives an overview of NHS complaints made to the Ombudsman in 2011-12, includes other real-life examples of responses given to people who have complained about the NHS. The Health Service Ombudsman, a free and independent service for anyone who is unhappy with NHS services, is calling on the NHS to improve the way it deals with complaints on the ground.

Dame Julie Mellor, DBE, Health Service Ombudsman

Dame Julie Mellor, DBE, Health Service Ombudsman

Ombudsman, Julie Mellor said: “All too often the people who come to us for help are unhappy because of the careless communication, insincere apologies and unclear explanations they’ve received from the NHS. 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.”

The Ombudsman’s report also highlights a continuing problem with GPs unfairly or hastily striking off patients from their practice lists after disputes and disagreements. Despite issuing a warning about this a year ago, the Ombudsman has seen complaints of this kind increase by 16 per cent.

Julie Mellor said: “Our casework tells us there needs to be a clear shift in the attitude and practice of some GPs towards complaints. Our concerns about how GPs are handling complaints about their practices need to be addressed as a priority.

As the new NHS begins to take shape, GPs and other providers, GP-led Clinical Commissioning Groups and the NHS  Commissioning Board will need to work to embed good complaint handling across the NHS.”

The report features the stories of some of the people who used the Ombudsman’s service because they were left dissatisfied with how the NHS had dealt with their original complaint. These include:

  • A man who was accused by a surgeon of being a ‘baby’ when he expressed his anxiety about having a general anaesthetic.
  • A couple who were left footing the bill for care home fees for months while waiting for a PCT to reassess the husband’s eligibility for NHS funding, even though a different PCT had already assessed him as eligible.
  • A man whose skin cancer was misdiagnosed by his GP practice on six different occasions but was unable to get the practice to acknowledge all their failings when he complained.

Statistical information about every NHS organisation across England is also included in the report.

You can download the report in pdf format here