By Nick Triggle
Ann Clwyd has criticised some nurses for the care and compassion they gave to her late husband
The culture of delay and denial over NHS complaints in England must come to an end, a review of the system says.
The government-commissioned inquiry – led by Labour MP Ann Clwyd – said too many patients found the current approach unresponsive and confusing.
It said it was putting the health service on a year’s notice to improve accountability and transparency.
To achieve this, the review has got 12 key organisations to sign up to a series of pledges.
- The Nursing and Midwifery Council to include new duties over complaints handling in its code of conduct.
- A pledge from Health Education England to develop an e-learning course to improve training.
- NHS England promising to work with local managers to hold hospitals and other providers to account.
- The Care Quality Commission to place a strong focus on complaints in its new hospital inspection regime.
- Hospitals will also be expected to publish annual reports in “plain English” on complaints.
The review was commissioned by the government after the public inquiry into the Stafford Hospital scandal.
Ms Clwyd was asked to lead it after she broke down in a BBC interview last December while describing the poor care her late husband had received.
She was sent more than 2,500 letters and emails from people describing similar problems and dissatisfaction with the way complaints are handled.
They said they were often unaware of how to make complaints or of the identities of staff they wanted to complain about.
They also said they feared reprisals if they did raise concerns.
The report concluded there had been a “decade of failure” and called for a revolution in complaints handling.
As well as the steps mentioned above, it said relatively simple measures, such as providing patients with paper and a pen beside their beds and displaying the names of staff on duty, could also help.
Ms Clwyd said: “When I made public the circumstances of my own husband’s death last year, I was shocked by the deluge of correspondence from people whose experience of hospitals was heart-breaking.
“It made me determined to do my best to get change in the system.
“The days of delay, deny and defend must end and hospitals must become open, learning organisations.”
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt welcomed the report and said a full response to the Stafford Hospital inquiry and the reports that have followed, which include this one as well as others on healthcare assistants, mortality rates and patient safety, would be made before the end of the year.
He added: “I want to see a complete transformation in hospitals’ approach to complaints so that they become valued as vital learning tools.”
But patient groups questioned how committed the government really was.
Peter Walsh, of Action Against Medical Accidents, pointed out that the government appeared to be watering down the duty of candour called for after the Stafford Hospital scandal.
The public inquiry had suggested this should become a legally enforceable duty, but latest plans suggest this will only be applied to the most serious cases of harm.
Call for advice service
Mr Walsh said: “For all the good commonsense proposals contained in the report, they would be rendered useless if the government restricts the duty of candour in this way.”
Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said: “The NHS has an unfortunate tendency to push complainants away and pull down the shutters. That has to change.”
The report comes as the health ombudsman calls for a 24-hour advice service for unhappy patients.
Writing in the BBC News website’s Scrubbing Up column, ombudsman Dame Julie Mellor said: “Too often we hear of patients not having the confidence to raise a concern on a hospital ward.”
She said patients and carers should be able to access advice on how to raise a concern “24 hours a day, seven days a week”, and that “every patient, carer and relative would have the opportunity to raise an issue in person, by email or over the phone”.