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Health Ombudsman promises action on hospital complaints

Author: Neil Fearn  Bullet  Dated: 20/08/2013

According to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), the number of NHS complaints it will investigate this year could be 10 times more than in 2012.

However, there is unlikely to be extra funding to cover the heavier caseload.

Responding to criticism about the volume of cases it has taken up, the Ombudsman's office says it will investigate around 4,000 cases between now and 2014.

Final resort before legal action

The Ombudsman, which is seen as the channel of last resort for disaffected NHS patients ahead of legal action, fielded 16,000 NHS complaints last year. On closer scrutiny of 3,770, the Ombudsman investigated 377 complaints – 5% fewer than in 2011.

Formally the Ombudsman looks into some 3% of complaints, which limited number has been criticised by patient groups.


Imperial College London's Professor Sir Brian Jarman, who specialises in medicine and hospital mortality data, said he was "horrified" to discover how few complaints were being investigated by the PHSO. He believes that complaints should be treated like "gold dust" and more need to be investigated.

The Ombudsman, Dame Julie Mellor, conducted a review of the PHSO after she was appointed in 2012. Patients' response prompted Dame Julie to boost the volume of annual investigations to some 4,000, but with no rise in the PHSO budget of £33million.

Because the office had adjusted its working model, Dame Julie said she could continue to operate with the same level of funding.

"We're just doing it differently. Like other bodies we're doing more with less," Dame Julie said.

However, whether this situation can prevail is doubtful, according to a Tory member of the Commons Health Select Committee.

"The more apologetic they are and the more they voice their failures, the more sceptical we become," Charlotte Leslie said. "We have heard it all before, we actually need to see results."

"Present system must change" – Keogh

Medical director of NHS England Prof Sir Bruce Keogh, author of a damning recent report on death rates at 14 NHS trusts, says the present system must change, with the Ombudsman finding it hard to cope with patients' complaints.

Sir Bruce believes the PHSO should work only on the most critical complaints, because they don’t have the capacity to deal with every complaint.

He also believes that the system should go back to how it was before 2009. The complaints against hospitals could be taken up with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) prior to the Ombudsman.

Medical negligence claims

It is possible that any complaints the Ombudsman cannot deal could be turned into formal claims of medical negligence. For this reason it's vital that specialist legal advice is easily located and obtained by potential claimants.

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