Making a complaint

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.

Making a complaint may help you to get answers about what went wrong. It can also be a way of getting an apology or a change in practice so that it doesn’t happen again. These are the usual reasons to make a complaint. If you are asking for money after an injury or death, you will need to make a clinical negligence claim instead.

If you are unhappy with the standard of healthcare you have received and have decided to make a complaint, speak first with the doctor or healthcare professional involved. They may be able to address your concerns.

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

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 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

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

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. You can find contact details for all these useful organisations at the bottom of this page.


Making a complaint about NHS care

You can make a complaint using the NHS complaints procedure. All NHS services are covered by this procedure, which is similar across the UK.

Timing

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
  • the Ombudsman.

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

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

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.


Private healthcare

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

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:

England

The Independent Complaints Advocacy Service (ICAS) can give you advice, help you to write your complaint and go along with you to the meetings.

Scotland

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.

Wales

Patient Advocacy services are available through Community Health Councils. They can help you make a complaint about NHS services or your NHS practitioner.

Northern Ireland

Patient and Client Councils can help you make a complaint about NHS services.

National organisations

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

The Patients Association provides an information and signposting service via their website and helpline.


Your medical records

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

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.


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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