Advising with empathy and experience

Hospital complaints guidance.

A campaign by the patient safety charity, Action Against Medical Accidents (AvMA) has resulted in the Department of Health agreeing to issue new guidance to all NHS organisations in England.  The guidance will tell NHS organisations to look into all complaints, regardless of the possibility of being sued.

Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, has moved to end the situation whereby some hospitals decide not to look into a complaint or to hold an investigation simply because a patient or relatives have also launched a lawsuit – or even just sought legal advice about doing so.The charity had sought legal advice after patients harmed by medical errors said they had been warned by hospitals that their complaints would be put on hold if they went to court or even considered doing so.  The practice had been outlawed by the Department of Health in 2009.

Lawyers acting on behalf of AvMA told Hunt that it had identified “a significant and persistent problem in that NHS Trusts are halting or abandoning investigations into complaints made under the complaints procedures once there has been any indication that legal action has been contemplated and will be taken at some future point”.

The Chief Executive of AvMA said “Refusing to investigate complaints if people exercise their civil right to take legal action is deeply unfair and a disgraceful abuse to patient’s rights, which is also totally at odds with government pronouncements about openness”.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said “We expect the NHS to respond to all complaints raised. That should apply in all but exceptional circumstances on which a complaint is put on hold because the Trust and complainant have been discussing its timing and handling”.

Kim Daniells of the CNCI team said “Individuals who are concerned that substandard medical care may have caused injury or death are absolutely entitled to seek legal advice. Indeed, there are time limits for beginning court action and it would certainly not be recommended for individuals to delay seeking advice while they wait for a complaint to be processed.  For many patients an open, honest and candid response to a complaint may put their minds at rest.  It may indeed prevent litigation from being taken further.  The practice of some Trusts to suspend complaints when individuals seek legal advice is entirely counterproductive.  It simply reinforces the view of patients that the Trusts have something to hide.  If anything it makes litigation more likely.  We welcome the fact that further guidance is to be given to Trusts but we share AvMA’s concerns that guidance was given on this as far back as 2009 but had apparently been ignored”.