How do you handle complaints?
For some years I have felt that the investigation of complaints in general practice leaves a lot to be desired. To me the problem lies in how patients are made aware of complaints procedures.
There are five fundamental features of the NHS Complaints System. Firstly patients need to be made aware of how complaints can be made in a clear and precise way. This is best done via a practice leaflet or on the practice web site. It’s not good enough to just say speak to the Practice Manager first. There is a danger however of simply accepting the draft from one of the standard surgery web site providers rather than taking a careful look and making it your own let alone being correct.
I have checked the web sites of 16 practices that are known to me in different parts of the country and was disappointed to find how few practices explained the complaints procedure correctly, in full or had an obvious link in their web site home page listed as “complaints’. Instead links to complaints advice are often wrapped up as Policies or Patient Information. So someone looking for the complaints procedure on a practice web site needs to look around the web site thoroughly. Some practices had no information or a very limited explanation in their site. One practice I checked had no web site.
Secondly if there is an explanation about the complaints procedure it needs to say what the options are for making a complaint. If a complainant is unhappy about making a complaint direct to a gp practice the complaint can be made to the commissioning body; NHS England or the Clinical Commissioning Group. What if the local government body run and paid for the services? None of the sites checked explained the options available to complain to the practice or the commissioning body but not both.
Thirdly the procedure needs to define the timetable for acknowledgement (2 working days) and reply 10 working days or period agreed) as well as the overall time limits (12 months) for making the complaint.
Fourthly the procedure should be clear about who can make a complaint and what happens when someone has died. None mentioned this. Anyone can complain when someone has died and written consent is needed if someone else complains on behalf of a living patient.
Finally the procedure should point out that the final arbiter is the NHS Ombudsman. Some provided a link to NHS England and others mentioned PALS.
So the lesson to learn is to take a very lose look at what is on your web site. Take a look at the excellent description of the NHS complaints system on the NHS Choices web site the text of which should form the basis of any practice information. the NHS England web site also has a useful explanation which makes clear what the patients options are.
All in all I think GP practices should urgently look at their practice leaflets and web sites to make sure that their complaints procedures are clearly and accurately documented before the Care Quality Commission takes a deeper interest.