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Ombudsman: NHS needs to “learn more from complaints”

The Health Service Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, has issued a warning to the NHS that it is missing a rich source of free and readily available information about patients by failing to listen and learn from complaints. She made the claim in Listening and Learning: the Ombudsman's review of complaint handling by the NHS in England 2009-10, the first in an annual series of reports examining NHS complaint handling in England today.


In the report, Ms Abraham comments that resolving complaints effectively need not be costly, saying: “Many of the lessons that can be learnt from complaints are straightforward and cost little or nothing to implement at local level: a commitment to apologising when things go wrong; clear and prompt explanations of what has happened; improved record keeping and better information for patients about how to complain.”

She also uses the report to call for clearer and more consistent reporting of complaint data across the NHS: “Poor quality or inconsistent information about complaints and their outcomes diminishes learning within the NHS and impedes access to choice for patients,” she says. “The “information revolution” proposed in the Government’s White Paper, Equity and excellence: Liberating the NHS, offers a route to redress this … Clear and consistent complaint information needs to be part of that revolution … Over the coming years, our data will serve to provide an independent snapshot of NHS performance … I hope that it proves to be a useful tool for patients, practitioners and NHS executives in highlighting how the NHS can continue to improve the service it provides for us all.”

The report includes previously unpublished data about the number and type of complaints received by the Ombudsman in 2009-10 for every trust and strategic health authority region in England. Covering the first full year of the new complaint handling system for the NHS, it reveals:

  • 15,579 health complaints were closed by the Ombudsman in 2009-10.
    More complaints were received about hospital, specialist and teaching trusts than any other group – 6,304 complaints (44 per cent). 
  • 17 per cent of complaints received (2,419) were about GPs, making this the second most complained about group.
  • 346 complaints were accepted for a formal investigation and 180 investigation complaints were reported on.
  • 63 per cent of all complaints investigated and reported on were upheld or partly upheld.
  • Of complaints about GPs, 56 per cent were upheld or partly upheld and 80 per cent of complaints about dentists were upheld or partly upheld.

The two most common reasons for complainants to be dissatisfied with the NHS were failings in clinical care and treatment and the attitude of staff. A poor explanation or an incomplete response were the most common reasons given for dissatisfaction with NHS complaint handling.