Wales

NHS complaints to public services ombudsman rise again

Hospital patient Image copyright Thinkstock

Complaints about the NHS in Wales to a watchdog body have increased by more than 50% over the past five years.

The public services ombudsman said the 4% rise in the last year was a "real concern" and against a fall in complaints about other public bodies.

Complaints about health now make up 36% of Nick Bennett's caseload.

The Welsh Government acknowledged the report but said it should be put in the context of a million A&E attendances and 750,000 hospital admissions.

Mr Bennett said: "The upward trend in NHS complaints is a real concern and leadership is needed to empower frontline staff so they can respond to the needs of patients across Wales.

"With an ageing population and continued austerity, the demands on the NHS have never been so great but it's crucial we use all the levers at our disposal to improve services."

He has appointed new improvement officers to work in particular health boards but said he wanted fresh legislation "to help end cycles of poor service delivery".

He wants powers to deal with complaints more effectively and which would lead to issues being spotted faster and enable public bodies to act earlier as they emerge.

The rise in complaints for 2015-16 has been blamed on a "notable increase" in complaints involving Abertawe Bro Morgannwg UHB (ABMU) and Betsi Cadwaladr UHB health boards.

Complaints about local health boards and trusts account for more than 80% of the 798 complaints about NHS bodies.

CASE STUDY:

A 57-year-old man with a congenital heart defect could not be put on the waiting list for surgery until all tests and investigations had been completed and this took 11 months.

The ombudsman said he should have had treatment within six months and had he received surgery more promptly, "on the balance of probabilities, his death would have been avoided".

ABMU agreed to implement his recommendations and to apologise to the patient's sister, who had complained.

Image copyright Public Services Ombudsman
Image caption Nick Bennett has already flagged up problems with out of hours hospital care

A spokeswoman for ABMU said it had seen more than two million patients last year and staff consistently provided high quality care "in the vast majority of cases".

"The number of ombudsman's complaints about ABMU services increased by five in 2015-16, to 115," she said.

"However, fewer were ultimately upheld, or resulted in actions like a voluntary settlement - one in four cases last year compared to a third the year before."

ABMU said it took complaints very seriously and had recently completely overhauled its complaints system "with a greater emphasis on nipping concerns in the bud, and learning from mistakes".

A spokesman for Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board said they encouraged people to contact the ombudsman if they were unhappy with the way complaints were handled.

"We have been working hard to learn from patients' experiences and there has been a decrease in the number of cases upheld by the Ombudsman over the last twelve months," he added.

Altogether, the ombudsman dealt with 2,268 new complaints about public services, down 1%. Of the complaints handled, 397 were resolved or upheld - and more than half of these were involving health issues.

A three month independent review of the NHS complaints handling process in 2014 called for a "no-blame culture" to learn lessons.

Earlier this year, Mr Bennett also called for a systemic review of out-of-hours hospital care in Wales, after he took a snapshot of cases he had dealt with over the last five years.

Conservative health spokesperson Angela Burns AM, said there was an "element of deja vu to the report" in that many of same complaints were being made that were being made five years ago.

"A continuing lack of funding and resource in our health service is denying NHS management the time needed to bed best practice in," she said.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said the NHS had been working hard to improve arrangements where patients can raise concerns.

"Whilst we acknowledge there has been a small increase in complaints to the ombudsman over the past year, to put this in context, every year the Welsh NHS deals with around 18 million contacts in primary care, three million outpatient attendances each year and one million A&E attendances and 750,000 admissions to hospital."

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