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NHS complaints

This information applies to Scotland

Changes to the NHS complaints procedure from 1 April 2017

The NHS complaints procedure will change from 1 April 2017. The main change is that NHS staff will aim to sort out your complaint within five days unless it needs a longer investigation. This page explains how to use the new process to complain about NHS services. If you need help with a complaint you started before 1 April 2017, contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau or the Patient Advice and Support Service.

You can call PASS for advice and support on 0800 917 2127

Who can complain about the NHS?

You have the right to give feedback or make a complaint about any aspect of NHS service using the NHS patient feedback and complaints procedure (known as the 'complaints procedure').

To complain you must have:

  • had or are having NHS care or treatment, or
  • visited or used NHS services or facilities, or
  • been affected, or are likely to be affected, by something that NHS staff have or haven’t done.

It is possible to complain on behalf of someone else. If you want to complain on behalf of another person, you will need the person's consent to act on their behalf. 

If you are a relative or friend of someone who is unable to give permission for you to complain on their behalf because of illness, incapacity or death, then you may make the complaint if it is agreed that you are a suitable representative.

There is more information about feedback and complaints about the NHS on the NHS inform website at www.nhsinform.scot.

There is also a leaflet for young people called 'Have your say! - your right to be heard' that is also available on the NHS inform website at www.nhsinform.scot.

What can you complain about?

You can use this procedure to complain about any aspect of NHS service you have received from a hospital, GP practice, NHS (non-private) dentist, ambulance or other NHS service. 

You can complain about issues including:-

  • care or treatment you have had or are having in the NHS
  • delays or failures to provide treatment (for example, you waited too long to be seen in A&E)
  • treatment by or attitude of a member of NHS staff involved in your care
  • NHS facilities (for example, buildings, food, cleanliness)
  • lost or stolen property
  • lack of information and clarity about appointments
  • policies (for example, visiting times).

This list is not complete. If you are in doubt about whether or not you can make a complaint, you can contact the Patient Advice and Support Service.

You can't use the complaints procedure to:-

You may want a doctor, nurse or other medical professional to be disciplined because of what s/he has or has not done. Making a complaint will not necessarily mean that they will be disciplined, even if the complaint is found in your favour. This is because the NHS complaints procedure and disciplinary procedure are quite separate. You may want to make a complaint to a professional regulatory body as well. 

Complaints about professional misconduct

If you think that an NHS practitioner has been guilty of professional misconduct, it may be possible to complain to the practitioner's professional or regulatory body. If a practitioner is found guilty of professional misconduct they can be prevented from practising in the future.

You may make a complaint to a professional body even if you have also made a complaint under the NHS complaints procedure. However, if an investigation has already started under the NHS complaints procedure, the professional body may decide to wait for the outcome of this before deciding what action it should take.

To find out more about the appropriate professional body, you can look at a leaflet called 'Who regulates health and social care professionals', produced jointly by all of the regulatory bodies including the General Medical Council. This leaflet outlines which regulatory body is responsible for monitoring each profession and what regulation means. It also provides contact details for all of the organisations. Versions in Welsh or in large print are also available. To download a copy of the leaflet, go to the website of the General Medical Council (GMC) at www.gmc-uk.org.

The GMC has produced a number of leaflets about concerns and complaints about doctors. There is one called 'What to expect from your doctor: a guide for patients' and another called 'How to complain about a doctor in Scotland'. To download a copy of either leaflet, go to the website of the GMCl at www.gmc-uk.org.

Financial compensation

If you are seeking financial compensation for damage to health caused by medical negligence you will need to take separate legal action (see Taking legal action about your NHS complaint).

If you are seeking financial redress for, perhaps, lost property, damaged goods or loss of earnings, it would be worthwhile asking the NHS complaints team how to make a claim as NHS Boards have the power to offer financial redress. You can ask the Patient Advice and Support Service (PASS) for help.

Time limits for making a complaint

You should make your complaint as soon as possible after the action you want to complain about. The NHS has a time limit for complaints. Normally, you must make your complaint:

  • within six months of the event you want to complain about, or
  • within six months of finding out that you have a reason to complain - but no longer than 12 months after the event.

There is discretion to waive the time limit where it would be unreasonable to expect you to have complained in time, for example, because of grief or trauma. If the decision is taken not to extend the time limit, a clear explanation of the basis for the decision will be provided to you. 

The NHS complaints procedure

The flowchart below explains the stages in the NHS procedure and how the NHS will deal with your complaint. 

Stage one: early resolution

The complaints procedure is the same for GPs, opticians, dentists, hospitals, and any other care given by the NHS. In all cases the focus is on early and local resolution where possible. You may be given an on-the-spot apology. You should:-

  • at first, try to discuss your concerns with the doctor, nurse or other medical professional involved in your care. They may be able to resolve your complaint immediately, and provide an apology. You can call or write if you have already left the hospital or practice you want to complain about 
  • ask to speak to a senior member of staff or GP practice manager, if you are unable to talk to the relevant medical professional
  • alternatively contact the feedback and complaints team at your local NHS health board. Contact details can be found on the NHS inform website at www.nhsinform.scot. Follow our advice for what to include in a written complaint
  • find details of who to complain to if your complaint is about NHS 24, the Golden Jubilee National Hospital, the Scottish Ambulance Service or the State Hospital in the NHS inform leaflet 'Feedback and complaints’. It is available on the NHS inform website at www.nhsinform.scot .

Most complaints should either be resolved within five working days from the date the complaint is received. In some circumstances stage one can be longer- up to ten working days. The NHS body should explain the outcome of the complaint to you, and the reasons for resolving it in that way. This can be in person or over the phone rather than in writing. 

If your complaint can't be resolved within stage one, it should be moved on to stage two. If you're not happy with how the complaint has been resolved under stage one, you can ask for it to be investigated under stage two

If you are complaining about a service that has both a health care and social care component, for example treatment in a care home, your complaint may be transferred to be dealt with under the social care complaint procedure. However, this is very similar to the NHS complaints procedure and your rights are the same. 

In some cases it may be appropriate for your complaint to be resolved through the provision of alternative dispute resolution services (mediation). You can request, or Health Boards may offer to provide, this service although both parties must agree to take part in the mediation.

What to include in a written complaint

You can make a complaint in writing, by phone, by email, in person or using an online complaints form. The complaints procedure is designed to resolve complaints quickly so you should try to speak to the doctor, nurse or other medical professional involved in your care. They may be able to resolve your complaint immediately and offer an apology on-the-spot. 

However, if you are unable to speak to a medical professional involved in your care, you can write to the complaints team at the NHS board responsible for the NHS service you are complaining about. 

In the complaints letter, always include:-

  • the date you are sending the letter
  • a statement that you are raising a complaint
  • your full name and address. Anonymous complaints are accepted but may not be able to be investigated fully
  • as much helpful information as possible about what happened, where it happened, when it happened and who was involved (it may be helpful to complete the template timeline of events at the bottom of this item), and
  • an indication of how you want the complaint to be resolved (for example, for an apology to be given). Bear in mind that financial compensation and disciplinary action are not possible under the complaints procedure. You can ask for the complaint to be dealt with under stage two straight away if you think this is appropriate. 

A word template of an initial complaint letter is available at the bottom of this item. Keep a copy for your records. 

Stage two: investigation

Complaints may be handled at stage two because they are complex, serious and high-risk issues and are not suitable for early resolution, because early resolution has failed, or because you were dissatisfied with early resolution and requested an investigation.

You should receive a written acknowledgement that the complaint has been received at stage two within 3 working days.

After this, you may be asked to take part in a meeting or phone call with NHS staff to discuss the complaint. This is not a formal legal meeting, and if you feel you are not well enough to attend the meeting you can ask for another form of communication to be arranged. You should be able to take a representative or other person along for representation or support. It may be helpful for you or someone else to take notes of the meeting. Keep a record of meetings using the template record of contacts during the investigation of a complaint.

You should receive a written response within 20 working days. The response will inform you of the result of the investigation and should:

  • show that the complaint has been investigated and reply to all the points that were raised, and
  • offer an apology if things have gone wrong, and
  • explain what action has been taken or will be taken to stop what you complained about happening again, and
  • if necessary, explain why the NHS cannot do anything more about some parts of the complaint, and
  • offer you a chance to talk to or meet with a member of staff if there is anything in the letter you doesn’t understand, and
  • include information about taking the complaint to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman for an independent review if you are still unhappy.

Independent review by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

If your complaint is not resolved through local resolution you can refer the matter to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) or seek a judicial review.

Generally you have to send your complaint to the Ombudsman within a year from when you found out about the issue you are complaining about. If there are special circumstances, the Ombudsman may be able to extend the time limit. There are fact sheets on the SPSO website about how to make a complaint about the NHS in Scotland and also about making a complaint about removal from a GP or dentist's register. These can be found on the SPSO website at www.spso.org.uk.

For more information about using the Ombudsman, see How to use an ombudsman in Scotland.

Judicial Review

It may be possible to challenge the final decision on your complaint by seeking a judicial review. Judicial review is a procedure which allows a court of law to review decisions made by public bodies. You will need to consult a solicitor if you plan to seek a judicial review. This can be a costly legal process. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau will be able to provide a list of local solicitors - where to get advice

Help with your complaint

Patient Advice and Support Service (PASS)

The Patient Advice and Support Service (PASS) is an independent service which provides free, accessible and confidential advice and support to patients, their carers and families about NHS healthcare. The service is provided by the Scottish CAB Service and you can access it from any Citizens Advice Bureau in Scotland. PASS promotes an awareness and understanding of the rights and responsibilities of patients and advises and supports people who wish to give feedback, make comments, raise concerns or make a complaint about treatment and care provided by the NHS in Scotland.

The service:

  • helps you understand your rights and responsibilities as a patient
  • provides information, advice and support for anyone who wishes to give feedback or comments, or raise concerns or complaints, about health care delivered by NHS Scotland
  • provides practical help with making a complaint, including writing letters, making phone calls and supporting you in preparing for and attending meetings
  • works with the NHS by using feedback to improve your healthcare and NHS service provision.

You can call PASS for advice and support on 0800 917 2127. Lines are open Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. You can find more information about PASS on the website at www.cas.org.uk/pass.

You can also get help from a Citizens Advice Bureau - where to get advice.

If you are considering taking legal action about your NHS complaint, you will need to consult a solicitor. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau can provide you with a list of local solicitors. 

You should be aware that these actions are costly and complex. All family practitioners are insured and legal action will usually be contested by an insurance company. Where the legal action is about the actions of an NHS Health Board employee, the NHS Health Board will be responsible for deciding whether to contest the action.

Complaints about NHS services for the armed forces, family and veterans

The NHS has particular responsibilities to the armed forces, family and veterans, including providing priority treatment to veterans for service-related conditions. The Scottish Government has produced a leaflet about veterans getting appropriate priority NHS treatment. The leaflet is called 'Have you served your country? Taking care of veterans' and is available on the Scottish Government website at www.gov.scot . This leaflet suggests using the NHS complaints procedure to resolve any breakdown in the arrangements for priority treatment for veterans. The Armed Services Advice Project (ASAP) or the Patient Advice and Support Service (PASS) can help with such complaints.

For more information about using the Armed Services Advice Project, see healthcare for people injured in the armed forces and veterans.

For more information about NHS services for the armed forces, family and veterans, see NHS patients' rights.

Discrimination

The NHS is not allowed to discriminate against you because of age, race, sex, disability, religion or belief, sexuality, gender reassignment or because you are married or in a civil partnership.

For more information about discrimination see discrimination.

Resources

Below are some template resources designed by PASS that you can use to make and manage a complaint. Clicking on the links below will download a copy of the document to your computer for you to complete and print out. You can get help to complete these documents from your local Citizens Advice Bureau - where to get advice. Remember to keep copies for yourself if you have to send them to anyone as part of the complaint. 

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