The right to complain – is the NHS hiding behind a smoke screen?

Robert Francis QC said this week that patient advocacy is “more fragmented” than when he investigated the scandal at Mid Staffs. So are people complaining more or are we just more aware of the issues in light of all the negative publicity the NHS has had and is still getting?

I think it is a bit of both. If you look at the news over the past year, or just within the last two weeks, it has been dominated by stories about death rates being covered up, 11,000 lives lost from heart attacks due to poor care, the struggle to recruit NHS managers since the publication of the Francis report and even an MP having collected over 3,000 stories about poor care after she exposed the shocking care her husband received. It doesn’t make good reading, does it?

2012-2013 saw 162,019 complaints, the equivalent of more than 3,000 written complaints a week over the year. That was an increase of 1.9% on the previous year – so what has gone wrong?

Attempts to reform the NHS – improving efficiencies and standards of care – whilst overwhelmingly positive and completely necessary, have exposed previously unrecognised issues. Mid Staffs is a perfect example. One piece of bad news prompts others to delve deeper into what’s happening in their neck of the woods and before you know it, it’s snowballed and we are in a vicious circle.

So what are we doing about it? Well one thing is for certain, it is on the government’s agenda. The recommendations from the Francis report continue to be implemented and the Commons Health Committee met last week for the first time to review progress in the handling of complaints from patients and the public, as well as concerns raised by staff. It was at this meeting that Robert Francis QC voiced his concern over patient advocacy.

In addition to national policy changes are other key initiatives designed to help support and motivate staff. For example, NHS Change Day is being held for the second time on the 3rd March this year. This day serves to harness the passion, drive, commitment and innovation that is shown every day by NHS staff. It uses the power of shared purpose to give the NHS a boost, challenging the status quo and trying something simple but different in order to improve patient care.

What we need is a better balance of publicity – a big ask I realise! There is lots of really positive work being done within the NHS to make the changes necessary to improve patient care. A lot of it stems around better infrastructure with systems that support staff, reducing the administrative burden and freeing up more time to spend with patients. In addition trusts are trying to cut costs – they are being expected to do more with less.

All of this is taking its toll. There is considerable pressure on trusts and their staff to deliver these changes and fast. With pressure comes stress and with stress comes the greater chance of mistakes. It is those mistakes, which have the potential to lead to complaints.

I think we should applaud the NHS for its grit and determination. No service is perfect, mistakes happen and complaints will result. But despite the barrage of bad publicity, it continues to looks for ways to improve. And let’s give it credit, in what has been one of the worse years in the history of the NHS, it has come out fighting. There will always be complaints about service. What is important is how you respond to them and no one can say the NHS has stood still and stuck its head in the sand.

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