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Treatment of whistleblowers a “stain on NHS”, say MPs

Select Committee: it was wrong to remove primary care complaints handling from local areas

Louise Prime

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Complaints handling in the NHS remains overly complex, the treatment of whistleblowers is “a stain on the reputation of the NHS”, and removing primary care complaints handling from local areas has caused delays and other problems, MPs said this morning. The Health Select Committee (HSC) also called in its report Complaints and Raising Concerns for health and social care complaints to be integrated under a single ombudsman.

The HSC said that although patient safety and the treatment of complaints and concerns have, over the past few years, become high-profile issues, “this is only the beginning of a process of change with significant scope for further improvement”. The MPs welcomed the progress made since their last report, but made recommendations for further action in some areas. They reported:

  • Most people who complain about NHS services do so to have their concerns and experiences understood, and for any failings to be acknowledged and put right so others won’t suffer the same avoidable harm – most don’t do it for financial redress. MPs said patients and their families deserve to be met with a system that is open to complaints, supports them through the process and “delivers a timely apology, explanation and a determination to learn from mistakes”.
  • Too many complaints are still mishandled, with people encountering poor communication or, at worst, a defensive and complicated system that results in a complete breakdown in trust and a failure to improve patient safety.
  • The removal of primary care complaints handling from local areas has resulted in a disconnection from local knowledge and learning and led to unacceptable delays, and the MPs recommend that this is rectified.
  • Regulators should recognise that the number of complaints about a provider might reflect its development of a positive culture of complaints handling, in order to improve its service – rather than assuming it indicates a problem with that service.
  • Complaints handling remains overly complex – the HSC recommends a single gateway for raising complaints and concerns with clearer, adequately resourced arrangements for advocacy and support.
  • There is a strong case for integrating complaints about health and social care under one umbrella and this should start with a single rather than separate ombudsmen.

MPs pointed out that poor treatment of whistleblowers in the past has not only caused them direct harm, but also discouraged others from speaking out, with ongoing implications for patient safety. They said: “Just as we expect the NHS to respond in a timely, honest and open manner to patients or families raising complaints or concerns, we should expect the same for staff. The treatment of whistleblowers remains a stain on the reputation of the NHS and has led to unwarranted and inexcusable pain for a number of individuals ...

“Whilst this committee is clear that professionals have a duty to put patients first and to come forward with their concerns we recommend that those who have suffered harm as a result of doing so and whose actions are proven to have been vindicated, should be identified and receive an apology and practical redress.”

Chair of the Committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, commented: “Concerns and complaints are an important source of information for improving services and it is vital that the NHS continues on the path of changing the way that these are viewed and handled.”

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