Medical mistakes: how to make a formal complaint

Mistakes can happen, even within the NHS. Making a formal complaint can bring peace of mind and ensure they don't happen again.

Sarah Johnson

Our life is in its hands, and few would disagree that the NHS does a remarkable job.

But mistakes can happen – last year the NHS received over 208,000 formal written complaints (equating to almost 600 complaints at day); an increase of more than 10,000 complaints on the previous year.

An increasing number of people affected by medical failures – whether it’s human error, equipment failure or administrative error– are realising the importance of making a complaint.

Sarah Johnson, Head of Medical Negligence at Heptonstalls, which has handled a range of NHS-related complaints, said: “It isn’t a pleasant subject, but there are occasions when people are badly let down by the health service that we trust.

“Many victims of medical negligence may not feel able to complain about the treatment they have received or may even feel daunted by the prospect.

“However, it is important to know that patients have the right to complain, to have their complaint investigated, and to receive a full and prompt response to their complaint.

“The NHS is keen to learn from these mistakes to reduce harm to patients.

“Making a complaint is a way to highlight failings in the system to the NHS providers and ensure things are put right in future.”

Here Mrs Johnson answers common questions about how to make a complaint.

1. Where do I start?

Making a complaint can sound daunting. But there are clear routes for patients and their families to take.

“Every NHS organisation will have a complaints procedure which can be requested,” says Mrs Johnson. “If your complaint is about an NHS hospital you can either make the complaint directly to the hospital or the organisation that the local commissioning group (LCG) trust with your care.

“If your complaint is against an NHS GP, dentist, pharmacy or optical services, it should be directed to the trust organisation or NHS England.

“You can contact NHS England on 0300 311 2233 or [email protected]

2. Who can make a complaint?

Anyone can make a complaint. It could be a family member, carer, friend or even your local MP, as long as they have your permission.

The complaint should be made within 12 months of the incident or within 12 months of it coming to your attention. Sometimes the time limit can be extended.

“Extensions are possible in situations where it would have been difficult to complain earlier, for example, because you were grieving or undergoing trauma or recovering from treatment,” adds Mrs Johnson.

3. Who can help?

If you need help making a complaint about your medical care, the Patient Advisory Liaison Service (PALS) is available in most hospitals and can offer guidance and help.

“Alternatively, you can seek advice from your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau or through the NHS Complaints Independent Advocacy Service through your local council on the website,” added Mrs Johnson.

Patients or their families can be financially compensated if their complaint is upheld. However, it is not automatic.

It can help to speak to a lawyer about your options. Heptonstalls holds free medical negligence advice drop-in sessions between 9.30am-5pm every Wednesday at their offices on Gladstone Terrace in Goole.

4. What might happen next?

You’ll have the chance to talk through your complaint with representatives of the relevant NHS institution.

Some complaints can be resolved at this stage, but don’t feel obliged to accept everything you’re told.

“NHS England refer to this informal process of complaint as ‘local resolution’,” says Mrs Johnson. “It is designed to resolve minor issues quickly by speaking to the clinician, or institution concerned, directly.

“Where you don’t feel you can resolve issues informally then you should make a formal complaint to the NHS health care provider.”

If you’re unhappy with the outcome of the investigation you can go to the independent Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. Their helpline number is 0345 015 4033 or click here

To help, you can request a copy of your medical health records under The General Date Protection Regulations. The GP medical records of a deceased person are held by Primary Care Support England (PCSE) on behalf of NHS England. To contact them click here.

5. Can I make a negligence claim?

To succeed in bringing a medical negligence claim, you must prove that the standard of care fell below that expected of a reasonably competent professional and that you suffered an injury as a result of what happened.

A lawyer expert in medical negligence claims can take care of the correspondence, and identify and instruct independent medical experts to assess your level of care and injury.

While some cases do go to court, many are settled well before.

Do you or someone you know feel you have been affected by medical negligence?

To find out more about the help available from the specialists at Heptonstalls, click here or call 0800 917 8267.