Personal Injury, Serious Injury & Clinical Negligence

“Sorry” really is the hardest word

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (“PHSO”), the body acting as the last port of call for complaints regarding NHS treatment, has released data on the complaints investigated by them in the 2014-2015 period. These show that the most common cause for complaints against the NHS is its failure to apologise when things go wrong.

34% of the 1,652 cases referred to the PHSO arose because the managers of NHS Trusts failed to provide a meaningful apology for the mistakes made in a patients care. The other main reasons for complaints were errors in diagnosis, poor treatment and lack of communication with patients.

The approach to complaints varies from trust to trust, and neighbouring hospitals perform very different from each other. For example, Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton has the 8th lowest number of complaints to the PHSO with only 27 cases being referred between 2014-2015. In contrast, the Trust responsible for Southmead Hospital in Bristol, to where many critical Taunton patients are transferred, had 104 complaints referred and its neighbouring Trust responsible for Bristol Royal Infirmary had 55 complaints referred.

For many patients, a simple apology and a full and frank explanation as to what went wrong is all they are looking for when making a complaint against the NHS. Sadly, there is an increasingly evident culture within the NHS to withhold apologies and acknowledgement of errors, which leave patients with no option but to bring clinical negligence claims in order to obtain justice and the acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

Claimants and their lawyers have faced fierce criticism by the NHS and the government over the cost of clinical negligence cases, but the PHSO announcement clearly shows that the NHS is resistant to putting its own house in order, and instead spends time pointing the finger at the victims of NHS errors and their representatives. The NHS and its insurer, the NHS Litigation Authority, fail to accept responsibility for the fact that patients have little option but to bring legal proceedings when its own complaints procedure is ineffective. Even when legal proceedings are started, the obstructive approach continues with admissions of liability being offered late in the day, meaning a lot of legal work could have been avoided, adding to the overall costs bill at the end. Hopefully the PHSO data will assist in the NHS’ re-evaluation of its approach to openly accepting responsibility for its mistakes.

The Ombudsman, Julie Mellor, has herself said “I strongly believe that NHS leaders should welcome feedback from patients and recognise the opportunities that good complaint handling offers to improve the services they provide … we are publishing this data to help hospital trusts identify problems and take action to ensure trust in the healthcare system remains high”.

If patients wish to use the NHS’ own complaints procedure, they must first file the complaint with the hospital who should properly investigate the allegations and provide a written response, and in some cases a meeting with the clinicians involved. The hospital should apologise for any failings that it has recognised in its investigation and explain how the failings have been resolved to prevent reoccurrence. If you are unhappy with the response, you should inform the hospital and they may reconsider the issue. If you remain unhappy, you can then contact the PHSO who will assess whether or not the hospital has followed the correct procedure. Sadly the response of the Ombudsman to complaints received from patients has in itself been criticised as inadequate in recent months, leaving dissatisfied patients with little alternative but to commence the litigation process in order to obtain an explanation for their treatment.

If you, or someone you know, has been affected by medical negligence, contact one of our specialist solicitors on 0800 316 8892, to see how we can help.