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How to make a complaint about NHS services

This advice applies to England

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 how to make a complaint using the NHS complaints procedure.

Who can complain?

You can complain about any aspect of the NHS as long as you:

  • receive or have received services from the body concerned, or
  • are someone who is affected, or likely to be affected, by the action, omission or decision of the body you want to complain about.

You can complain on behalf of someone else if the person who has grounds to complain:

  • has died, or
  • is a child, or
  • can’t make the complaint themselves because of physical or mental incapacity, or
  • has asked you to act on their behalf.

Children and young people

If you’re the parent of a child under 16, you can make a complaint on their behalf, but only if the NHS thinks the child can't make the complaint themselves. If the NHS thinks the child can make the complaint themselves, you can still make the complaint on their behalf, as long as the child gives you permission to make a complaint on their behalf. The NHS might ask the child to fill in a ‘permission to act on my behalf’ form.

When you can’t use the complaints procedure

You can’t use the official complaints procedure if:

  • you made a complaint verbally and it was sorted out to your satisfaction by the end of the next working day
  • you’re an employee of the NHS body and want to complain about an employment issue
  • your complaint has already been looked at under the NHS complaints procedure
  • your complaint has been, or is being investigated, by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

Time limits

You should make your complaint as soon as possible. Complaints should normally be made within 12 months of the date of the event that you're complaining about, or as soon as you found out about the problem.

The time limit can sometimes be extended but only if it's still possible to investigate the complaint. For example, the time limit could be extended if it would have been very difficult for you to complain earlier, because you were undergoing trauma.

Before you make a complaint

If you have concerns, the first step is usually to talk to the person concerned, or ask to see the person in charge. For example, if you have concerns about hospital treatment, try and talk to the person in charge of the ward. If your complaint is about a GPs surgery, ask to speak to the practice manager. Any member of staff should be able to tell you how to contact the right person to talk to, or in the case of a hospital, you can find out from the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS). The switchboard or the website of the organisation could also tell you the right person to contact.

Keep a note of:

  • the dates and times when you talk to them
  • the names of the people present
  • what was discussed, their response and what they say will happen next.

If you’re not happy after this discussion, you can ask to see the manager of the organisation. Again, the staff should be able to tell you who this is and how to contact them. Or in the case of a hospital, you can ask PALS. Keep a record of this meeting.

Local resolution

If you’re still unhappy after talking informally about the problem, or if the complaint is something that can’t be sorted out straight away, you can make a complaint under the NHS complaints procedure. The first stage is called local resolution.

You can address your complaint either to:

  • the body which provides the service, or
  • the body which buys or commissions the service. In the case of hospital treatment, this is a clinical commissioning group and in the case of GP services, this is NHS England. If it's another service, you can find out who commissions it by going to complaints about other NHS services.

If you’re complaining to the service provider, address your complaint to their Chief Executive or the complaints manager. You might also want to send a copy to the body which commissions the service so they are aware of the problem.

If you're not comfortable talking directly with the service provider, you may prefer to address your complaint to whoever commissions the service.

You can make your complaint in person, in writing or by email. It’s best to make it in writing and you can get help writing your letter.

Whichever method you use, make sure you say that you are now starting the complaints procedure. You should give full details of the problem, including the name of any staff members involved. Before you make your complaint, make a note of the relevant events, dates, times, names and conversations, and include all necessary details. It can take a while to sort out a complaint and keeping a note of everything will help you remember the details.

Make your explanations as short and clear as possible. Focus on the main issues, and leave out irrelevant details. Don’t be afraid to say what has upset you, but avoid aggressive or accusing language. If you can, talk through what you want to say with someone else first, or ask them to read what you've written before you send it. You should also say what outcome you would like, for example, an explanation or apology or a change in treatment. If you complain in writing, keep a copy of everything you post, and make a note of when you sent the letter. If you need to enclose other documents, only send copies and keep the originals. You might want to send your letter by recorded delivery to make sure they get it.

If you make the complaint verbally, it’s a good idea to make notes beforehand of what you want to say as it’s easy to get distracted if you’re upset. Also if you can, take notes of what they say to you when you report your concerns. However, the organisation you are complaining about must make a written record of your complaint and provide you with a copy of this record unless the complaint is sorted out to your satisfaction by the end of the next working day after you made the complaint. Check this record carefully, to make sure it tallies with what you wanted to say.

If you’re complaining on behalf of someone else, you will usually need their consent, so get them to also sign the letter if they can, or enclose an authorisation for you to act on their behalf. If you’re complaining on behalf of a patient who has died, you'll need to provide evidence that you’re the next of kin or that you have got the permission of the next of kin to make the complaint.

If your complaint is about more than one organisation

If your complaint is about more than one NHS organisation, you only need to send a letter to one of the organisations. They should contact the other organisation and work with them to deal with your complaint. The same procedure is used to complain about adult social services arranged, provided or commissioned by the local authority. So if you have a complaint about both a hospital and adult social care services, you can write just the one letter explaining all the problems, and whoever you address the letter to will contact the other organisation.

How and when should they acknowledge your complaint?

They must acknowledge your complaint no later than three working days from when they got it. They can do this either verbally or in writing.

When they acknowledge your complaint, they must offer to discuss with you, at an agreed time:

  • how the complaint will be handled, and
  • likely timescales.

If you don’t accept the offer of a discussion, they must still tell you in writing of when the investigation is likely to be finished and when you should get their response.

There are no limits on how long they can take to deal with your complaint but it has to be in a reasonable time. The timescale will depend on things like:

  • how many staff they need to speak to
  • how easy it is for them to get access to your medical records
  • if other organisations are involved.

If you feel that the delay is unreasonable, you can go to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, although they don’t usually investigate unless local resolution has finished. After six months, if the organisation hasn’t yet sent you a response, they have to write to you to explain the reason for the delay.

Get help

There are organisations that can help you make a complaint, for example, your local Healthwatch or NHS Complaints Advocacy.

Next steps

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