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Deciding whether you should make a complaint about the NHS

The care you receive from the NHS is usually very good and most people don’t have any problems. But occasionally things can go wrong. This page tells you about things to think about before you make a complaint.

Decide whether you should make a complaint

You may be afraid that, if you report a problem or make a complaint, this will make the situation worse. You might not be comfortable raising your concerns directly, as you may think that this could annoy the healthcare professional who will then provide a worse standard of care. For example:

  • doctors and other health professionals may act differently towards you if they know you are taking legal action against the hospital
  • some patients have reported that when they made a complaint about their GP, the GP removed them from the list.

This is why the rules about making a complaint allow you to complain either directly to the organisation providing the service or to the organisation who buys (commissions) the services.

Whether and when you report a problem may depend on the situation.

In situations where there is an immediate high risk to the patient, you should report the problem immediately. It will be dealt with under safeguarding procedures rather than the NHS complaints procedure. Examples include:

  • an elderly relative isn’t being referred to hospital, even though she has serious medical needs and can’t look after herself at home
  • a hospital patient is not being hydrated or helped to take medication that she can’t take herself.

You may prefer to find another solution to the problem instead of making a complaint, for example:

  • if you’re unhappy with the treatment you’re getting from your GP, you could ask to be referred to another GP in the same practice, or in another practice. You don’t have to give a reason why you want another GP
  • if you’re in hospital, you may prefer to wait until you've been discharged before you report a problem - but don’t miss the time limits for making a complaint.

Have you the right to make a complaint?

There are rules about who has the right to complain. For example, you can’t use the NHS complaints procedure unless you've been affected by the action, omission or decision of the organisation which provides or commissions someone who is likely to be affected by any of these things could also make a complaint. So you could use this procedure about things like planned hospital closures that are likely to affect you. You can make a complaint on behalf of someone else if they give you permission. Children and young people can make complaints themselves if they have enough understanding, or a parent could make a complaint on behalf of a child.

Time limits

There are time limits within which to make a complaint. For example, the time limit for using the official complaints procedure is 12 months, although this can be extended in some cases. The time limits for legal action are different and depend on the sort of legal action you are considering. Check what are the time limits are for each course of action that you’re thinking about.

Cost

It doesn’t cost you anything to complain using the NHS complaints procedure. But if you want to take legal action, you will need the advice of a specialist solicitor, and legal aid isn’t available for most cases of clinical negligence or personal injury.

Why you might decide not to make a complaint

Some ways of getting a problem sorted out can take a very long time. It can be upsetting and at times you may not want to carry on with a complaint as this can prolong your grief and stress and prevent recovery. You can drop a complaint whenever you want but it can be helpful to talk over whether to drop a complaint with someone else. For example, your local Healthwatch might be able to help, or will be able to put you in touch with someone who can help.

You may be upset about the way that the NHS deals with your complaint, for example, a member of staff is rude when you try to explain how you feel about a problem. There are standards that the NHS must follow when they deal with your complaint, and if they fail to do so, you can also complain about this.

In fact, patients should be encouraged to report problems. The Health Ombudsman has said that: ‘Complaints are a gift to the NHS’ because complaints show how improvements are achieved. Her fear is that many people, especially older people, are suffering in silence and she says that this is not acceptable.

Get help

In all cases where you aren’t sure whether to go ahead with a complaint, it can be helpful to talk over the problem with someone else, for example, local Healthwatch which offers confidential advice and support. If you’re in hospital, you can talk over the problem with someone from the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS).

Next steps

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