Complaints to the health ombudsman peaked in 2019/20, but remained high in 2020/21, finds Costanza Pearce
There were almost 6,000 complaints made about GPs to the health ombudsman in 2020/21, despite a pause in the complaints process last year, figures obtained by Pulse reveal.
The 5,708 complaints received by the ombudsman last year was a decrease on 2019/20, but was still more than in the two preceding years.
However, the figures exclusively provided to Pulse also reveal that only a fraction of the complaints last year were either fully (16 or 0.3%) or partially upheld (23 or 0.4 %).
The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman makes final decisions where the complainant decides NHS England, the Government and other public bodies have failed to resolve their grievance. The independent complaint service makes recommendations – including explanations, apologies and improvement actions – to organisations it deems to have acted wrongly.
The ombudsman suspended the complaints process from late March to July 2020, meaning it did not accept any new complaints in that period.
The GMC also limited its activities and GP practices were told they could defer the usual management of complaints to ‘concentrate their efforts on the front-line duties and responsiveness to Covid-19’, as part of a ‘system-wide pause’ on the NHS complaints process.
On reopening its own complaints process in July last year, the ombudsman said it was ‘vital’ to begin learning lessons from the handling of the coronavirus crisis, and encouraged the public to come forward with complaints about the service they received.
A spokesperson tells Pulse: ‘GPs have worked under extraordinary pressure over the past year. To enable them and the wider NHS workforce to focus on dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, we paused work on complaints from March to July 2020.
‘It is now vital that the learning from complaints made about the NHS throughout this period is used to drive a positive recovery for the health service.’
Although the 2020/21 complaints figures have yet to be confirmed, any change in the final number would be ‘minor’, the spokesperson says.
It is ‘unclear’ why the number of complaints was ‘substantially’ higher in 2019/20 than in other years, they add.
Low numbers of complaints upheld
However, very few complaints have been upheld by the ombudsman, with a dip in the number of those partially upheld seen in 2020/21.
BMA GP Committee deputy chair Dr Mark Sanford-Wood says that despite the rise in complaints, they represented a ‘tiny fraction of the millions of GP appointments carried out each week without giving rise for complaint’.
He tells Pulse: ‘When a concern is raised, it is the role of the ombudsman thoroughly and independently to investigate and, as these figures show, at the end of that investigative process, just 17 were fully upheld in 2019/20.
‘What is truly remarkable is that despite the enormous changes to the way in which GP practices have had to work because of the pandemic and the strain it has placed on doctors and patients alike, the number of complaints in the most recent year dropped and just 16 were fully upheld.’
However, he adds that this is ‘16 more than the profession would want to see’.
As with many other organisations, the pandemic has caused ‘significant delays’ for the ombudsman, which says it has a ‘backlog’ of cases. It asks complainants not to submit complaints about matters ‘likely to resolve themselves within the next few weeks [or] months’ or ‘delays in service delivery that are non-critical and are the result of an organisation coping with Covid-19’.
It is unclear what impact this message has had on complaints submitted regarding GP practices or what impact the delays will have on case numbers going forward. The ombudsman also told Pulse it is currently unable to provide a breakdown of complaint themes.
Regulators including the GMC had said they would take a sympathetic approach to doctors working under the pressure caused by the pandemic.