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MPs call for single ombudsman for health and social care complaints

There is a strong case for integrating complaints about health and social care under the same umbrella and this should start with a single rather than separate ombudsmen, an influential group of MPs has said.

In its latest report, Complaints and raising concerns, the Health Select Committee said the handling of complaints about health services remained “overly complex". They recommended a single gateway for raising complaints and concerns “with clearer, adequately resourced arrangements for advocacy and support”. 

The MPs found that the current system for handling complaints about NHS services remained variable. “Too many complaints are mishandled with people encountering poor communication or, at worst, a defensive and complicated system which results in a complete breakdown in trust and a failure to improve patient safety."

The report concluded that, while some progress had been made, there was still significant scope for further improvement in relation to patient safety and the treatment of complaints and concerns.

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The MPs also found that:

  • Most of those who complained about NHS services did not seek financial redress. “They do so because they wish to have their concerns and experiences understood and for any failings to be acknowledged and put right so that others do not suffer the same avoidable harm.”
  • In moving to a culture which welcomed complaints as a way of improving NHS services, the number of complaints about a provider, rather than being an indicator of failure, might highlight a service which had developed a positive culture of complaints handling. It was important for system and professional regulators alike to be able to identify the difference.
  • The removal of primary care complaints handling from local areas had resulted in a disconnection from local knowledge and learning and had led to unacceptable delays. The committee recommended that this be rectified.
  • There was no excuse for any health or care organisations not to implement the recommendations of the 'My Expectations' report on first tier complaints as this had clearly set out a user led guide to best practice.

The committee also described the treatment of whistleblowers as “a stain on the reputation of the NHS” and had led to unwarranted and inexcusable pain for a number of individuals.

“The treatment of those whistleblowers has not only caused them direct harm but has also undermined the willingness of others to come forward and this has ongoing implications for patient safety,” the MPs said.

“Whilst the committee is clear that professionals have a duty to put patients first and to come forward with their concerns it recommends that those who have suffered harm as a result of doing so and whose actions are proven to have been vindicated, should be identified and receive an apology and practical redress.”

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, the chair of the committee, said: "Concerns and complaints are an important source of information for improving services and it is vital that the NHS continues on the path of changing the way that these are viewed and handled.

“There can be no excuse for not implementing a complaints service which is easy to use and responsive to patients and their families but sadly the situation remains variable.”

The committee's report can be viewed here.

The Local Government Ombudsman welcomed the committee’s recommendation that health and social care complaints should in the future be dealt with by one ombudsman.

“We also recognise that such complaints are often closely linked to other aspects of public service delivery, and particularly to local authority services,” the LGO said. “That is why alongside colleagues at the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, we have been supporting the call for the creation of a single ombudsman for all public services in England.”

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

 “I am pleased that the Health Select Committee’s report has echoed much of what my colleagues and I have been calling for in the health and social care sector.

“I support the committee’s view that commissioners have a key role to play in ensuring providers have effective mechanisms in place for dealing with, and learning from complaints.

“All too often in the complaints that I see, care commissioners believe they can delegate accountability for the care they commission. The approach we take to our investigations is that responsibility for the quality of care stays with the authority, regardless of the provider.”

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Julie Mellor said: "We agree that the current system for complaint handling can be confusing for the public and that's why we have been calling for a single public ombudsman service that deals with complaints about health and social care. This will make it much easier for people to raise their complaints and concerns about public services.”

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