Better complaint handling can transform patient care

Published on Friday, 28 February 2014 09:27
Written by Vicki Mitchem

Complaint handling in the NHS is in the spotlight as never before. Research by the Consumer Insight Centre indicates that effective complaint handling and better training are vital for providers, patients and to avoid systemic failures in future. From relative obscurity, the NHS complaints system may now have become one of the most intensively reviewed and scrutinised areas of the public sector.

The public inquiry into events at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital, the Clwyd-Hart report into complaint handling in hospitals, the Public Administration Select Committee Inquiry into public services complaints handling ... and just when we thought there was nothing left to review... the Health Select Committee has launched an enquiry into 'Complaints and Raising Concerns' in health and social care.

What are the implications for Boards, leaders and managers within the health service and beyond? What arrangements do trusts need to have in place to ensure that some of the high profile failings in care during recent times do not occur elsewhere? These are pressing questions, which require urgent answers in order to ensure continued public trust and confidence in the system.
One answer suggested by the reviews mentioned above relates to the need to change cultures and the important part that training can play in this area.

Robert Francis QC made 13 recommendations in relation to effective complaints handling, saying that:

"Patients raising concerns about their care are entitled to: have the matter dealt with as a complaint unless they do not wish it; identification of their expectations; prompt and thorough processing; sensitive, responsive and accurate communication; effective and implemented learning; and proper and effective communication of the complaint to those responsible for providing the care."

Many of these issues were picked up in the Clwyd-Hart report, which concluded:
"Complaints are sometimes dealt with by junior staff or those with less training. Staff need to be adequately trained, supervised and supported to deal with complaints effectively."
So, what training would lead to effective complaint handling and what role can this play in both improving the complaints system to provide better outcomes for patients who have experienced a problem?

The Consumer Insight Centre's longstanding experience in this area indicates that there are three core aspects to effective complaint handling:

  • Resolving complaints. Ensuring complaints are resolved in a consensual manner, as near as possible to the time that the problem arose.
  • Investigating complaints. Where appropriate, using robust and thorough investigation methodologies to hold services to account and root out systemic failures.
  • Remedying complaints. Understanding what will make things better for the individual patient and ensuring systems change to safeguard the wider public interest.

Complaint handlers and managers need to develop an in depth set of skills and aptitudes in each of these areas in order to understand the concerns and provide effective redress for patients.

Especially important is ensuring that the complaints system is aligned fully with the trust's system for organisational learning and improvement. The Consumer Insight Centre's research indicates that feedback and learning from complaints is crucial not only for providers, but also for those who make complaints. Recent research conducted for the Care Inspectorate in Scotland, for example, highlighted that for people who complained about care services an overriding priority was to know and be assured that their complaints had made a difference.

Other research conducted by the Centre on behalf of NESTA demonstrates the powerful potential that complaints have to drive innovation in public service delivery. Unfortunately, as is widely recognised, this valuable source of insight is not currently being maximised. Effective training and learning should be at the heart of efforts to make sure that complaints lead to positive change and so create a better system for trusts, their patients and their staff.

For more information click here.

Source: QMU

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