Making a complaint
This information is for people who want to make a formal complaint because they are unhappy about the treatment or care they received from a health service.
Most people are happy with the treatment and care they get from healthcare professionals. But sometimes mistakes can be made and this can be very upsetting.
We can’t advise you about whether it’s right for you to make a complaint. We hope this information answers your questions and directs you to other organisations that can help and support you.
The difference between making a complaint and a clinical negligence claim
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Making a complaint is different from making a clinical negligence claim. The main reason for making a complaint is usually to get answers about what went wrong. You may also want an apology or be told that there will be changes to practice to stop it from happening again. In a clinical negligence case, you are asking for money after an injury or death.
Why you might want to make a complaint
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We all have an idea of the standards we would like from our healthcare services. These standards may be about communication, waiting times, treatments or levels of hygiene. We all want to be cared for by kind and helpful staff. Hospitals also expect their staff to behave in a certain way and have standards that staff should reach. Usually the standards are met, but some people may not have the level of care they expected. If this happens, it is normal to be unhappy and to want an explanation or apology. Making a complaint can be a positive way of dealing with an upsetting situation.
Getting an apology or explanation of what went wrong may help you accept it. Sometimes changes to practice are made after a complaint.
To begin with, it’s best to speak to the doctor or healthcare professional involved. Sometimes the problem can be sorted out by talking about your concerns. It is a good idea to do this before you decide to make a formal complaint.
In England, your local Patient Advisory Liaison Service (PALS) may be able to help sort out your complaint. You can find your local PALS office by asking at the hospital. Your Patient and Client Council may be able to give you advice in Northern Ireland, the Patient Advice and Support Service may be able to advise you in Scotland or your local Community Health Council may give you advice in Wales.
Contact details for all these useful organisations are listed at the end of this page.
Making a complaint about NHS care
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You can make a complaint using the NHS complaints procedure. All NHS services are covered by this procedure, which is similar across the UK.
You have to make the complaint within a year of when the event happened, or from when you were first aware of it. If there are reasons why you could not make the complaint within this period, you may be able to after this time.
You should receive an initial response within three working days of making your complaint. You should be told that your complaint has been received and what will happen next. You should also be asked how you would like your complaint to be dealt with. This may be at a meeting or in writing. You should be told how long this first stage is likely to take.
Stages of the complaints process
There are two stages to the complaints process:
Local resolution is the first stage of the NHS complaints procedure. Most cases are sorted out at this stage.
Ask for a copy of the complaints procedure. Some hospitals have a complaints manager who deals with all complaints. Copies of the NHS complaints procedure are available from the hospital, PALS or from the Department of Health. PALS can also help and support with a complaint. Every NHS trust in England has a PALS.
Your complaint can be spoken or in writing. It is better to make a written complaint because you can keep a record of it. Keep a copy of everything you post or email and a note of when you sent it. If you make a complaint in person, a member of staff should record it in writing.
Writing the complaint
Always include as much information as possible. This may include:
dates of when and where the incident took place
names and positions of the people involved
details of any other discussions about your complaint that have already taken place – include dates and names of the healthcare professionals you spoke to
questions you’d like answered and a list of the things you are not happy about
what you would like to happen as a result of your complaint
your name, address, phone number and email address.
What you can do if you're not satisfied
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If you’re not satisfied with the response to your complaint, you can ask for it to be investigated further or you can complain to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is completely independent of the NHS and will decide whether or not to investigate your complaint further.
You should contact the Ombudsman within a year of when the event took place, or from when you were first aware of it. You will need to fill in a form to explain why you are not satisfied with the way your complaint has been dealt with.
Some people may consider taking legal action if they’re still not happy with the outcome from the Ombudsman.
Making a complaint for someone else
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If you are making a complaint for someone else, the hospital, clinic or GP practice will need to make sure that you are suitable to do this. You will usually need to have written permission from the person you are complaining for.
If you are being treated privately, ask the manager of the hospital or clinic for their complaints procedure. If your care is through a private healthcare insurance company, you can also ask them for advice.
Help with your complaint
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The following organisations can help you make your complaint or give you information and support. Contact details for the following organisations are at the bottom of this page:
The Independent Complaints Advocacy Service (ICAS) can give you advice, help you to write your complaint and go along with you to the meetings.
The Patient Support and Advice Service is available from any Citizen’s Advice. The staff there can guide you through the different stages of making a complaint.
Patient Advocacy services are available through Community Health Councils. They can help you make a complaint about NHS services or your NHS practitioner.
Patient and Client Councils can help you make a complaint about NHS services.
You might want to see your medical records and possibly copies of scans and x-rays. You do not have to give a reason for asking to see your records. You can ask for them during a consultation or you can write or email your request. If you are asking for the records of someone else, you need their permission. They should be given to you within 40 days. The cost may vary, but will be no more than £50. NHS choices can give you more information on this.
Your feelings about making a complaint
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Making a complaint can be difficult and upsetting. It may be painful to remember what has happened, and to keep going over it. If you still need medical care, you may find it hard to trust your healthcare professionals. You can mention this to them so they understand your worries.
You’re likely to feel lots of emotions and these may be too much to cope with. Each person has their own way of coping with difficult situations. You may find it helpful to talk to family, friends or someone outside of your situation. Other people prefer to keep their feelings to themselves. There is no right or wrong way to cope. Our Online Community is a place where you can share experiences with people who know what you’re going through. You might find our section on coping with your emotions helpful.
The organisations listed here may be able to offer you advice and support. You may also find it helpful to talk to a counsellor who can listen and help you deal with your emotions. Our cancer support specialists can give you advice about finding a counsellor in your area.
Care Quality Commission (formerly the Healthcare Commission)
Finsbury Tower, 103-105 Bunhill Row,
London, EC1Y 8TG
Tel 03000 616161
The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman
Millbank Tower, Millbank,
London, SW1P 4QP
Tel 0345 015 4033
The Independent Complaints Advocacy Service (ICAS)
ICAS can support you and help you raise a concern about NHS care or treatment. It's free, confidential and independent. You can find out more from the Carers Federation. carersfederation.co.uk
Patient Advice and Liaison Services (PALS)
Provides information, advice and local support to help patients, families and their carers.
Independent Advice and Support Service
Contact the Scottish Citizens Advice Bureau:
Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS)
1st Floor Spectrum House,
2 Powderhall Road,
Edinburgh EH7 4GB
Tel 0131 550 1000w
Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO)
4 Melville Street,
Edinburgh EH3 7NS
Tel 0800 377 7330
Board of Community Health Councils in Wales
2nd Floor, 33–35 Cathedral Road,
Cardiff CF11 9HB
Tel 0845 644 7814
Public Services Ombudsman for Wales
1 Ffordd yr Hen Gae, Pencoed CF35 5LJ
Tel 0300 790 0203
Patient and Client Councils
There are local Patient and Client Councils in Northern Ireland.
Tel 0800 917 0222
Northern Ireland Commissioner of Complaints
The Ombudsman, Freepost BEL 1478,
Belfast BT1 6BR
Call in (9.30am–4pm) at: The Ombudsman’s Office,
33 Wellington Place,
Belfast BT1 6HN
Tel 0800 34 34 24
Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA)
AvMA provides free, independent advice and support, and has caseworkers who help people through the process of making a complaint.
44 High Street, Croydon CR0 1YB
Tel 0845 123 23 52 (Mon–Fri, 10am–5pm)
The Patients Association
The helpline provides information on what patients are entitled to and how to make a complaint.
PO Box 935, Harrow HA1 3YJ
Tel 0845 608 4455 (Mon–Fri, 9.30am–5pm)
This section has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources, including:
NHS Choices nhs.uk (accessed October 2013)
Action Against Medical Accidents avma.org.uk (accessed October 2013)
With thanks to Timothy Spring, Clinical Negligence Solicitor, who reviewed this edition.
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