This information applies to Scotland.
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.
To complain, you must:
- have had or be having NHS care or treatment
- have visited or used NHS services or facilities
- have been affected, or be likely to be affected, by something that NHS staff have or haven’t done.
It's possible to complain on behalf of someone else. If you want to do this, you'll need the person's consent to act on their behalf.
If you're a relative or friend of someone who can't give permission for you to complain on their behalf because they're ill, disabled or dead, you can make the complaint if it's agreed that you're a suitable representative.
What can I complain about
You can complain about any aspect of NHS service you've received from a hospital, GP practice, NHS 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, if you waited too long to be seen in accident and emergency (A&E)
- treatment by, or the attitude of, a member of NHS staff involved in your care
- NHS facilities - for example, buildings, food or cleanliness
- lost or stolen property
- a lack of information or clarity about appointments
- policies - for example, visiting times.
These are just some examples. If you're in doubt about whether you can make a complaint, you can contact the Patient Advice and Support Service (PASS).
You can't use the complaints procedure to:
- ask for care or treatment for the first time
- ask for a second opinion about your care
- complain about private healthcare
- get compensation
- complain about an issue you're already taking legal action about
- make a complaint that is being or already has been investigated by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).
You might want a doctor, nurse or other medical professional to be disciplined because of what they have or haven't done. Making a complaint won't necessarily mean that they will be disciplined, even if the complaint goes your way. This is because the NHS complaints procedure and disciplinary procedure are separate. You might want to complain to a professional regulatory body as well.
If you think an NHS practitioner is guilty of professional misconduct, you might be able to complain to the practitioner's professional or regulatory body. If a practitioner is found guilty of professional misconduct, they can be stopped from practising in the future.
You can complain to a professional body even if you've also made a complaint under the NHS complaints procedure. But if an investigation has already started under the NHS complaints procedure, the professional body can decide to wait for the outcome of this procedure before deciding what action it should take.
To find out more about the appropriate professional body, you can read a leaflet called 'Who regulates health and social care professionals' on the General Medical Council (GMC) website . This leaflet outlines which regulatory body is responsible for monitoring each profession and what regulation means. It also provides contact details for all the regulatory bodies. Large-print versions of the leaflet are available.
The GMC has other information about concerns and complaints about doctors. There's also a leaflet called 'What to expect from your doctor: a guide for patients'.
If you want to get compensation because your health was harmed because of medical negligence, you'll need to take separate legal action.
If you want to get money back, for example for lost property, damaged goods or loss of earnings, it's worth asking the NHS complaints team how to make a claim, because NHS boards have the power to help in these cases. You can ask the Patient Advice and Support Service (PASS) for help.
How long do I have to make 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
- within six months of finding out that you have a reason to complain - but no longer than 12 months after the event.
There's discretion to waive the time limit if it would be unreasonable to expect you to have complained in time, for example because of grief or trauma. If it's decided not to extend the time limit, you should be given a clear explanation of the basis for this decision.
How do I make a complaint
There are two stages to the NHS complaints procedure:
- Early resolution
Stage 1: Early resolution
The complaints procedure is the same for GPs, opticians, dentists, hospitals and any other NHS care provider. In all cases, the focus is on finding a solution quickly and locally if possible. For example, you might be given an on-the-spot apology.
If you want to complain, you should:
- first try to discuss your concerns with the doctor, nurse or other medical professional involved in your care. They might be able to resolve your complaint immediately and say sorry. You can call or write if you've 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 can't talk to the relevant medical professional
- contact the feedback and complaints team at your local NHS board - you can find contact details of NHS boards on the NHS inform website.
If your complaint is about NHS 24, the Golden Jubilee National Hospital, the Scottish Ambulance Service or the State Hospital, you can find out who to complain to on the NHS Inform complaints page.
You can make a complaint in writing, by phone, by email, in person or using an online complaints form. You should write to the complaints team at the NHS board responsible for the NHS service you're complaining about.
In the complaints letter, always include:
- the date you're sending the letter
- a statement that you're raising a complaint
- your full name and address - anonymous complaints are accepted but it might not be possible to investigate them fully
- as much helpful information as possible about what happened, where it happened, when it happened and who was involved - it might be helpful to complete the template timeline of events on the Patient Advice and Support Service website
- how you want the complaint to be resolved - for example, by someone saying sorry. Bear in mind that financial compensation and disciplinary action aren't possible under the complaints procedure. You can ask for the complaint to be dealt with under stage 2 straight away if you think this is appropriate.
You can find a template initial complaint letter on the Patient Advice and Support Service website. Keep a copy for your records.
How the complaint is dealt with
Most complaints should be resolved within five working days of the date the complaint is received. In some circumstances, this can be 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. It can do this in person or over the phone rather than in writing.
If you're complaining about a service that has both a healthcare and a social care component, for example treatment in a care home, your complaint might be transferred to the social care complaints procedure. This is very similar to the NHS complaints procedure and your rights are the same.
In some cases, it might be appropriate to resolve your complaint through mediation. You can ask for this service, or health boards can offer it, but both parties must agree to take part in the mediation.
If your complaint can't be resolved at stage 1, or if you're not happy with the outcome of stage 1, your complaint should be moved on to stage 2.
Complaints might be handled at stage 2 because:
- they're complex, serious or high-risk issues and aren't suitable for early resolution
- early resolution has failed
- you were unhappy with the outcome of stage 1 and asked for an investigation.
You should receive a written acknowledgement within three working days that the complaint has been received at stage 2.
After this, you might be asked to take part in a meeting or phone call with NHS staff to discuss the complaint. This isn't a formal legal meeting, and if you don't feel 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 another person along for representation or support. It might be helpful for you or someone else to take notes of the meeting. You can keep a record of meetings using the template for recording contacts on the Patient Advice and Support Service website.
You should receive a written response within 20 working days. The response will tell you the result of the investigation and should:
- show that the complaint has been investigated and reply to all the points that were raised
- offer an apology if things have gone wrong
- explain what action has been taken or will be taken to stop what you complained about from happening again
- explain why the NHS can't do more about some parts of the complaint, if necessary
- offer you a chance to talk to or meet a member of staff if there's anything in the letter you don’t understand
- include information about taking the complaint to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) for an independent review if you're still unhappy.
What if I'm still not happy
If your complaint isn't resolved at stage 2, you can refer the matter to the SPSO or get a judicial review.
Review by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman
Generally you have to send your complaint to the ombudsman within a year of finding out about the issue you're complaining about. If there are special circumstances, the ombudsman might extend the time limit. There are information leaflets on the SPSO website about how to complain about the NHS in Scotland and about being removed from a GP's or dentist's register.
Read more about using an ombudsman in Scotland.
It might be possible to challenge the final decision about your complaint by getting a judicial review. Judicial review is a procedure which allows a court to review decisions made by public bodies. You'll need to consult a solicitor if you plan to get a judicial review. This can be a costly legal process. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau can provide a list of local solicitors. Find out where to get advice.
Getting help with a complaint
The Patient Advice and Support Service
The Patient Advice and Support Service (PASS) is an independent service that provides free, accessible and confidential advice and support about NHS healthcare to patients, their carers and their families. The service is provided by Citizens Advice Scotland and you can access it from any Citizens Advice Bureau in Scotland.
- helps you understand your rights and responsibilities as a patient
- provides information, advice and support for anyone who wants to give feedback, make comments, raise concerns or complain about healthcare 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 to Friday, 9am to 5pm. You can find more information about PASS on its website.
You can also get help from a Citizens Advice Bureau. Find out where to get advice.
PASS has produced an information pack for NHS patients in Scotland. It has also produced templates that you can use to:
- make an initial complaint
- record contacts
- record a timeline of events
- write a letter of consent
- access medical records.
You can find these documents on the Patient Advice and Support Service website. Keep copies for yourself if you have to send them to anyone as part of your complaint.
You can get help to fill in these documents from your local Citizens Advice Bureau. Find out where to get advice.
Taking legal action about a complaint
If you're considering taking legal action about your NHS complaint, you'll need to consult a solicitor. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau can give you 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. If 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, veterans and their families
The NHS has particular responsibilities to the armed forces, veterans and their families, including by providing priority treatment to veterans for service-related conditions.
You can use the NHS complaints procedure to resolve any breakdown in the arrangements for priority treatment for veterans.
The NHS must not discriminate against you because of age, race, sex, disability, religion or belief, sexuality or gender reassignment or because you're married or in a civil partnership.
Read more about discrimination.