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NHS must improve complaints handling, Healthcare Commission warns

By Gareth Iacobucci

Some NHS trusts are still not responding to complaints effectively or learning lessons from them, the Healthcare Commission has warned.

The way trusts handle complaints is still the number one issue raised by complainants, accounting for 19% of cases reviewed, up from 16% last year.

The report comes just days after Pulse revealed fears that PCT trials of a new complaints process set to be introduced under the Care Quality Commission have subjected GPs to unfair and overly aggressive investigations.

The Commission reported an equal number of complaints reviewed by about both primary and hospital care (both 43%). The remainder were about mental health trusts (10%), strategic health authorities (1%), ambulance trusts (0.9%), prisons (0.8%) and other trusts (2%).

Complaints about GPs were the most common type of complaint about the primary care sector. Twenty-five percent of complaints about GPs related to delays or failure to diagnose a condition or illness.

In almost half of the overall number of complaints reviewed, the Commission either upheld or sent back complaints to trusts for further work because of the inadequacy of the initial response.

As in previous reports, patients and the public raised concerns about: poor communication (12% of cases, down from 17% in 2006/07), standard of treatment (11% up from 6% in 2006/07), delay or failure to diagnosis a condition (9%), and delays in accessing care (8% up from 4% in 2006/07).

The report is the Commission's third review into cases where patients are unhappy with the response from trusts. It covers the 8,949 complaints reviewed in the year to 31 July 2008.

A total of 1,018 cases were reviewed against GPs. Of these, 45% were upheld with recommendations and 43% were rejected.

Anna Walker, chief executive of the Healthcare Commission, said: ‘Considering that millions of treatments are delivered by the NHS each year it is perhaps encouraging that we only receive around 8,000 complaints a year. However, it is concerning that around half of complainants received an inadequate response from the trust when they first complained and we required further work to be done on the complaint.

‘It is clear that trusts are not always systematically learning from them and improving their services for the future as a result. They clearly need to do so.'

The Commission, which will disband and at the end of March to make way for the new regulator, said the NHS currently delivers 380 million treatments and receives around 135,000 complaints per year.

From 1 April 2009, a new two-tier complaints handling system will come into place. But opponents fear the system, which allows patients to complain directly to their PCT, will give trusts ‘carte blanche' to abuse the system.

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