Everyone makes mistakes. But whilst some mistakes can be put right with an apology or an explanation, there are others that have consequences which will last a lifetime. (Where a medical mistake has caused a severe injury to a child, both options – complain or claim – are available to the parents, but compensation can only be obtained by making a claim.)
The NHS gives every patient the right to complain about any aspect of their treatment or care. The NHS Complaints Procedure ensures that patients who make a complaint to their GP or hospital will have their complaint acknowledged, investigated and answered within a stated time frame which should not exceed six months. The patient must make their complaint within 12 months of the treatment but occasionally, if there is good reason for the delay, a hospital may accept a complaint made at a later date.
Patients can make their complaints directly or can request help from the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (known as PALS) who are located in most hospitals. The PALS can help resolve minor issues directly within the hospital, if possible, or prepare a formal complaint on the patient’s behalf.
If the complaint is not answered within a reasonable time or a patient is not satisfied that the complaint has been dealt with properly, the patient can then ask the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman to review the handling of the complaint.
When the complaint has been investigated, the patient will receive a written response to the questions they have asked and may be invited to a meeting to discuss their concerns. If the hospital accepts that there were failings in their care, the patient may receive an apology or an explanation. Some patients find this explanation helpful and are reassured to know that their concerns have been heard and other patients may benefit from any lessons learned. Occasionally the response to the complaint might suggest that the patient seek advice from a solicitor. However, the complaints procedure, regardless of outcome, will not result in any compensation.
In more serious cases, where there has been an unexpected or particularly traumatic outcome, the hospital may carry out its own internal investigation and produce a report which the patient, or their parents in the case of a child, are entitled to see. The main purpose of the investigation is to help the NHS improve its services by highlighting aspects of good and poor practice and taking steps to prevent the same mistakes from happening again. However informative or critical the conclusions of the report, this process will not result in compensation for the patient. That can only be achieved by making a claim.