THE BLOG

Is the NHS Even Listening?

06/02/2014 12:22 GMT | Updated 08/04/2014 10:59 BST

We'd all like to see the NHS take action and positively tackle the problems that exist within the organisation. Ideally, if there's an issue that was causing concern, it'd be raised, examined and appropriately addressed.

Many of these issues come to light following feedback and complaints from patients - and it's true that the majority of the time something is done to try and rectify whatever it is that's gone wrong.

Unfortunately, there are other instances where no action is taken. Despite concerns being raised, nothing is done and ultimately it is patients who suffer.

The most glaring examples tend to be big news. The Stafford Hospital scandal saw a complete lack of attention paid to what were appalling cases of neglect, with completely substandard levels of care leading to unnecessary deaths.

But what about the smaller cases - the ones which aren't headline news, or at least aren't yet? Is action being taken to address failings and put things right?

The alarming conclusion is that not only is nothing being done in some circumstances but that complaints aren't even being listened to. They are lost somewhere in a sea of apparent ignorance, denial and dismissiveness and, as with Stafford, a failure to acknowledge issues means the chances of righting the wrongs are massively decreased. And that's if they even get to the stage where someone somewhere decides to say something, instead of remaining silent.

To understand more about what's behind this, we need to look at a couple of areas. Firstly, there's the whole subject of whistleblowing to examine. I've written here before about this topic but it is the fact that NHS employees are reluctant to raise concerns for fear of reprisals, while pay-offs in return for 'co-operation' don't exactly result in more issues coming to light.

In addition to this, patients and their families are often disinclined to complain. There are interesting reasons behind this, as we discovered when Fletchers Solicitors carried out a recent survey of 2,000 patients to gauge their experiences of the NHS.

The survey revealed that 57% of patients had, or knew a family member who had, a reason to complain about their treatment, however less than a third (18%) chose to do so. The most common reason for not registering a complaint was that the person didn't believe anyone would listen to them, while a similar number said that they didn't complain because they believed it would adversely affect their treatment.

Patients were also highly critical of the procedures in place when complaints are made. When asked to rate their overall experience of the NHS out of ten, patients scored their experiences very highly, an average score of seven, with 51% rating their experience of the NHS as eight or above.

However, when those patients who had made a complaint were asked to rate the complaints process, they gave an average score of four, with a third rating the process as three or lower.

Such perceptions of complaints procedures can be linked to a particularly startling admission which has been made in the past few days.

The Health Service Ombudsman is the body which has ultimate responsibility for complaints against the NHS and is the organisation that's meant to deal with them if the NHS itself has failed to do so properly.

And yet it says it fully investigated less than 400 out of 16,000 patient complaints made last year - figures which have understandably not gone down well among those who have taken the plunge and decided to try and pursue a complaint.

Many have been informed that an investigation wouldn't achieve anything; others were told that there was no case to answer or that they should argue their case elsewhere. In one example, the Ombudsman did decide to investigate and found a hospital guilty of failing to adequately examine the reasons leading to the death of a baby in their care. The problem was, it took nearly five years - and a wider scandal involving the relevant hospital trust - before the investigation was even opened.

For its part, the Ombudsman says it's listened to feedback and changed the criteria for looking into complaints but the statistics from last year remain as evidence of a wider malaise in dealing with the problems which the NHS experiences.

It's a situation where NHS employees and patients are reluctant to complain in the first place and when they do it's often to no avail. For the NHS to improve it needs to take on board what's going wrong and do something about it. When the organisation doesn't listen, those improvements can't be made.