Making a complaint

Most people are happy with the treatment and care they get from healthcare professionals. But sometimes mistakes happen and this can be very upsetting.

If you are unhappy with the standard of healthcare you have received, you have a right to complain. If you can, speak with the healthcare professional involved first. They may be able to address your concerns.

If you decide to make a formal complaint, it’s important to be aware of the NHS complaints procedure. Find out about any time restrictions for making a complaint and what information to include. This will help your case.

The usual reasons for making a complaint are:

  • to help you get answers about what went wrong – this may lead to you getting an apology
  • to get a change in practice so that the event doesn’t happen again.

If you are asking for money after an injury or death, you will need to make a clinical negligence claim instead.

You may find it helpful to contact one of the organisations that provide information and support to patients making a complaint.

When you might make a complaint

Most people are happy with the treatment and care they get from healthcare professionals. But sometimes mistakes are made and things go wrong, which can be very upsetting. If you are unhappy about the treatment you have received, you have a right to make a complaint.

We can’t advise you whether it’s right for you to make a complaint. But we hope this information answers your questions and directs you to other organisations that can help and support you.


The difference between a complaint and a clinical negligence claim

Both a complaint and a clinical negligence claim should give you information about what went wrong. They may both lead to a formal apology or to changes in practice to stop it from happening again. But a complaint will not give any financial compensation.

If you are unhappy about the treatment and care you have received, you can use the complaints procedure. If you are not satisfied with the response to your complaint, you can then think about making a claim for clinical negligence. This is when you hope to get financial compensation to make up for losses and expenses that have been caused by sub-standard treatment.


Why you might want to make a complaint

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 get the level of care they expected. If you believe the care or treatment you have received has fallen below the standard you reasonably expected, you may want to make a complaint.

This could be because you:

  • want an explanation and, if appropriate, an apology
  • believe that there are lessons to be learned to stop the same mistakes happening to other people.

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.


Making a complaint about your care

To begin with, it’s best to speak to the healthcare professional involved. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, or if it’s not possible, you could speak to their manager. Sometimes the problem can be sorted out by talking about your concerns with those involved. It is a good idea to do this before you decide to make a formal complaint.

There are different services that can help you sort out your complaint depending on where you live:

  • England – your local Patient Advisory Liaison Service (PALS)
  • Scotland – the Patient Advice and Support Service
  • Wales – your local Community Health Council
  • Northern Ireland – your Patient and Client Council.

You can find contact details for all these organisations under Help with your complaint further down this page.

If you decide to make a formal complaint, you can ask for a copy of the complaints procedure. Copies of the NHS complaints procedure are available from the hospital, patient advisory service (such as PALS) or from the Department of Health.

Timing

You should make the complaint as soon as you reasonably can. This will help it to be investigated while the staff members involved are still available and can remember what happened.

The NHS complaints procedure expects a complaint to be made within 12 months of when the event happened, or from when you were first aware of it. The time limit can sometimes be extended if there are reasons why you could not make the complaint within this period. For example, if you were grieving.

How to complain

A formal complaint is best made in writing, but can be made in person or by phone. You should provide as much information as possible so your complaint can be fully investigated. Focus on the main issues and leave out anything that isn’t relevant. Try to keep your explanations as clear as possible. You should include:

  • dates of when and where the incident took place
  • names and positions of the people involved (if you know them)
  • details of any other discussions about your complaint that have already taken place – include dates and the names of the healthcare professionals you spoke to
  • questions you would 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.
You can send your written complaint by letter or email. 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. Some hospitals, GP surgeries and clinics have websites that allow you to submit a complaint online.

Who to address your complaint to

Many hospitals and GP practices will have a complaints manager or team that you can write to. You may be able to find their contact details by looking at their website, or by asking your local patient advisory service (such as PALS). If you are not sure who to send your complaint to, the following may help.

If your complaint is about:

  • A GP – contact the surgery’s practice manager or complaints manager.
  • An NHS hospital – contact the hospital trust’s chief executive or the hospital complaints manager.
  • A private consultant or hospital – contact the consultant or the hospital manager.

The complaints process

Your complaint should be acknowledged within three working days. You should be told that your complaint has been received and what will happen next. You should also be told how long this first stage is likely to take. Make a note of the date that you expect a response. If you do not get the response on time, you can write or phone to check on progress.

You may be offered a meeting to discuss your complaint. But if you would prefer to have time to think it through, you are entitled to ask for a written reply first.

There are two stages to the complaints process:

  • local resolution
  • appeal to the health services ombudsman.

Local resolution

This is the first stage of the NHS complaints procedure. Most cases are sorted out at this stage. You should receive the findings of the investigation together with an appropriate apology and the changes or learning that have taken place as a result of the investigation. If you are not satisfied, you are entitled to ask follow-up questions.

Appeal to the health services ombudsman

If you do not believe your complaint has been properly investigated, or if you are unhappy with the response, you are entitled to take your complaint to the health services ombudsman. See below for how to contact the ombudsman in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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.


Seeing your medical records

Before you write your complaint, you may want to see your medical records. You do not have to explain why you want to see them.

Send your request to the GP practice manager or the hospital’s medical records officer. You will need to include a copy of your driving licence or passport and proof of your address, such as a recent utility bill. A copy of your records 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.

Parents can apply to see their child’s medical records. If the child is mature enough, the healthcare professional will check if the request is made with their agreement.

If you are asking for the records of someone else, you will need their written permission. Or, if you have the legal authority to make health and care decisions on a person’s behalf, such as a lasting power of attorney (LPA) or welfare power of attorney, you will need to include a copy of this.

If there is no legal authority or if the person is unconscious or unable to communicate their permission, their health professionals have a duty to act in their best interests in deciding what information should be released.

If you are asking for the records of someone who has died, you will need to explain your relationship to them. If you were appointed an executor by their will, or have taken out letters of administration because they did not leave a will, you should say. In this situation, the £50 limit of what can be charged does not apply. You may want to ask what the fee will be if there are a lot of records. It is also possible to limit your request by asking only for the records made after a certain date.


Making a complaint for someone else

Parents are entitled to make complaints on behalf of their children.

If you are making a complaint on behalf of an elderly relative, or someone who is unable to make a complaint themselves, 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. Or, if you have one, a copy of the legal authority to make health and care decisions on their behalf, such as a power of attorney.

If you are making a complaint about the treatment of someone who has died, you will need to explain your relationship to them.

There are no rules, and different health professionals may take different approaches when responding to your complaint for someone else. They should always respond reasonably, but also have to maintain patient confidentiality.


Help with your complaint

The following organisations can help you make your complaint or give you information and support.

England

• Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) can give you information about the NHS complaint procedure. You can find your nearest PALS office on the NHS Choices website or by asking your GP or at your local hospital.

Independent Health Complaints Advocacy (0330 440 9000) can give you advice, help you write your complaint and go along with you to the meetings.

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (0345 015 4033) for complaints about the NHS in England if you are dissatisfied with the response you have received.

Scotland

The Patient Advice and Support Service is available from any Citizens Advice (0808 800 9060). The staff there can guide you through the different stages of making a complaint.

The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (0800 377 7330) for complaints about the NHS in Scotland if you are dissatisfied with the response you have received.

Wales

• Patient Advocacy services are available through Community Health Councils (02920 235 558). They can help you make a complaint about NHS services or your NHS practitioner.

The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales (0300 790 0203) for complaints about the NHS in Wales if you are dissatisfied with the response you have received.

Northern Ireland

Patient and Client Council (0800 917 0222) can help you make a complaint about NHS services.

The Northern Ireland Ombudsman (0800 34 34 24) for complaints about the NHS in Northern Ireland if you are dissatisfied with the response you have received.

National organisations

Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA) offers individual guidance and information about the complaints procedure through their helpline (0845 123 2352) and casework service.

The Patients Association (020 8423 8999) provides an information and signposting service through their website and helpline.


Your feelings about making a complaint

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. Making a complaint should not affect ongoing treatment in any way.

You are likely to feel lots of emotions and, for some people, 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 also 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.


Useful organisations

We have a list of organisations that may be able to offer you support and information. Our database of useful organisations lists organisations that provide both practical and emotional support, including information on health, benefits and financial help.

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