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Complaints Legal Challenge.

View profile for Helen Caulfield
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Patients who have concerns about medical treatment may opt to follow a complaints process, or seek legal advice. Many opt to do both. At a difficult and often distressing time patients and their families understandably want to make sure they have appropriate information and support. In light of this the conflicting advice to NHS Trusts in relation to handling complaints is unnecessary and undesirable. It cannot be in the interests of patients or clinicians for enquiries and investigations to be suspended because there is the possibility of a legal claim.

Individuals who have questions or concerns about the care they have received need to be able to raise those issues and have confidence that they will be addressed openly and honestly. It is not unusual for patients who experience unwanted outcomes to treatment to seek an explanation, but also harbour suspicions that there may have been failings in care.

In the vast majority of cases, any problems following treatment are a result of an underlying condition, accepted risks or entirely unforeseen events.  Our experience at dealing with clinical negligence claims tells us that in most cases, concerns about quality of care are not borne out by the evidence.

The numbers of those who suffer harm because of poor quality care in the NHS are substantial, but this is because the NHS treats so many patients. In reality the proportion of patients suffering harm is tiny.

For those who have encountered problems, an open and transparent process for addressing concerns is critical. It allows these patients a voice. It provides an explanation. It helps them to engage with their healthcare providers. It helps to restore trust.

Sadly, the attitude of the NHS to complaints where there is also the potential for legal action fails on all counts.

Those patients who suspect there may have been failings simply have their suspicions reinforced.  Refusal to investigate, explain or respond simply leads to the impression that the clinicians are closing ranks and that the NHS is protecting its own at the expense of its patients.

Nothing is more likely to encourage a patient to take legal action than to have their entirely reasonable questions and concerns ignored.

We encourage those who have concerns about treatment to raise issues with the NHS.  The majority of those who seek advice from us simply want an explanation or to be able to understand what has happened.  In many cases the responses they receive are sufficient to put their mind at rest.  A detailed and comprehensive response can, in some cases, show there is no basis for a claim.

The NHS has nothing to fear by dealing with complaints and concerns in an open way.  The majority of clients who come to us do not want to sue the NHS.  Most of them call the NHS in very high regard.  Ultimately, they seek legal advice not because of a desire for compensation, but because of a perceived need to have someone else on their side – someone who will help them navigate a difficult process at a distressing time.

The NHS has everything to lose if it fails to listen to, and engage with, its patients.

It is a sad state of affairs that legal action has to be threatened in order to bring about the changes that are so manifestly required. AVMA are absolutely justified in taking this action and we hope that the outcome will be positive for patients and the NHS.