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Promoting patient safety: NHS complaints and whistleblowers

The Health Select Committee’s recent inquiry into the handling of complaints from patients and the public, and concerns raised by staff, concludes that while patient safety and the treatment of complaints and concerns have become high profile issues in the last few years, this is only the beginning of a process of change with significant scope for further improvement.

Among the key conclusions found by MPs was the considerable variability in the systems for handling complaints, noting that ‘too many complaints are mishandled with people encountering poor communication or, at worst, a defensive and complicated system which results in a complete breakdown in trust and a failure to improve patient safety.’

This is certainly something that we as a clinical negligence team find: frequently patients come to us with very comprehensive and open responses to their complaints, whereas others receive responses that are far from satisfactory. At the far end of the scale is a Trust which carried out a serious untoward incident investigation into the death of one of our clients’ partner of 25 years: not only was she unaware that this had taken place, but the Trust later refused to disclose it to her on request from her solicitors.

Apart from commenting extensively on the complaints process both in health and social care terms, the committee raised concerns about the treatment of whistleblowers, concluding that ‘the treatment of whistleblowers remains a stain on the reputation of the NHS and has led to unwarranted and inexcusable pain for a number of individuals. The treatment of those whistleblowers has not only caused them direct harm but has also undermined the willingness of others to come forward and this has ongoing implications for patient safety.’