Making a complaint

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

This could be because you:

  • want to get answers about what went wrong – this may lead to you getting an apology
  • want to get a change in practice so that the event does not happen again.

To begin with, it is best to speak to the healthcare professional involved. Sometimes the problem can be sorted out by talking about your concerns with those involved.

If you decide to make a formal complaint, it is important to be aware of the NHS complaints procedure. Usually, you will need to make your complaint within 12 months of when the event happened, or from when you were first aware of it.

There are organisations that provide information and support to patients making a complaint.

Why you might make a complaint

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


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 changes in practice to stop the event from happening again. But a complaint will not give any financial compensation (money after an injury or death).

If you are unhappy about the treatment and care you have received, you can use the NHS complaints procedure. For more information about the NHS complaints procedure:

If you are not satisfied with the response to your complaint, you may want to think about making a claim for clinical negligence. This might give financial compensation.


When you might make a complaint

We cannot advise you whether it is 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 (see ‘Help with your complaint’ below).

We all expect good standards from 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 meet. 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 to get answers about what went wrong – this may lead to you getting an apology
  • want to get a change in practice so that the event does not happen again.

Making a complaint can be a positive way of dealing with an upsetting situation. Getting an apology or explanation of what went wrong might help you accept it.


Making a complaint about your care

To begin with, it is best to speak to the healthcare professional involved. If you do not feel comfortable doing this, or if it is 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.

If you decide to make a formal complaint, it is important to be aware of the NHS complaints procedure. You can ask for a copy of the process for NHS complaints in your local area. These are available from the hospital or your local patient advisory service.

You can also talk to an organisation that provides information and support to patients making a complaint. We have contact details for these organisations (see ‘Help with your complaint’ below).

Timing

You should make the complaint as soon as you reasonably can. This means it can 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

It is best to make a complaint in writing, but it 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 is not 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 a written complaint by letter or email. Keep a copy of everything you send, 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.
  • If your complaint is about an NHS hospital, contact the hospital trust’s chief executive or the hospital complaints manager
  • If your complaint is about a private consultant or hospital, contact the consultant or the hospital manager.


The complaints process

You should be told within 3 working days 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 the progress.

Once your complaint has been investigated, you will receive a written response.

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 learnings 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 can complain to the relevant ombudsman:

We have contact details for these organisations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (see ‘Help with your complaint’ below).

The ombudsman is completely independent and will decide whether or not to investigate your complaint further.

You should contact the ombudsman within 12 months 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 are still not happy with the outcome from the ombudsman.


Seeing your medical records

Before you make a complaint, you may find it helpful to see your medical records. If you are making a clinical negligence claim, you will need a copy of your medical records and possibly copies of scans and x-rays. 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 might 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 about 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 as an executor by their will, or have taken out letters of administration because they did not leave a will, you should mention this. 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. You can also ask to only see records made after a certain date.

If you do not want to request your records yourself, your solicitor should be able to make the application for you.


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 (POA).

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

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.


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 or care in any way.

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 are going through. You might also find our information on coping with your emotions helpful.

We have a list of organisations (see below) that 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. Call us on 0808 808 00 00 to talk to our cancer support specialists, who can give you advice about finding a counsellor in your area.


Help with your complaint

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

National organisations

  • Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA) can give you advice and information about making a clinical negligence claim. This includes information about paying legal costs and finding a solicitor. You can call their helpline on 0845 123 2352.
  • The Patients Association provides information online about how to make a complaint. You can also call their helpline on 020 8423 8999.

England

  • The 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, by asking your GP or at local hospital, or by phoning NHS 111.
  • Local authorities fund advocacy services in their area. These services can help make sure the correct procedures are followed by your health and social care services. To find an advocacy service, contact your local council or check its website.
  • If you are not satisfied with the response you have received to a complaint about the NHS in England, you can contact the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman on 0345 015 4033.
  • Tips and tools to help you make a complaint about the health service are available on the Citizens Advice website.

Scotland

Wales

  • Patient advocacy services are available for free through Community Health Councils (CHC). They can help you make a complaint about NHS services or your NHS practitioner. You can call 02920 235 558 or find your local CHC at NHS Direct Wales.
  • If you are not satisfied with the response you have received to a complaint about the NHS in Wales, you can contact the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales on 0300 790 0203 or on their website.

Northern Ireland

  • The Patient and Client Council can help you make a complaint about NHS services. Find out more on their website or by calling 0800 917 0222.
  • If you are not satisfied with the response you have received to a complaint about the NHS in Northern Ireland, you can contact the Northern Ireland Ombudsman on 0800 34 34 24 or on their website.

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Getting a second opinion

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