Most medical care and treatment goes well, but things occasionally go wrong, and you may want to complain. So where do you start? Every NHS organisation has a complaints procedure. To find out about it, ask a member of staff, look on the hospital or trust’s website, or contact the complaints department for more information.

You may want to make positive comments on the care and services that you have received. These comments are just as important because they tell NHS organisations which factors are contributing to a good experience for patients.

If you are not happy with the care or treatment you have received or you have been refused treatment for a condition, you have the right to complain, have your complaint investigated and be given a full and prompt reply.

The NHS Constitution explains your rights when it comes to making a complaint.

You have the right to:

  • Have your complaint dealt with efficiently, and properly investigated;
  • Know the outcome of any investigation into your complaint;
  • Take your complaint to the independent Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman if you are not satisfied with the way the NHS has dealt with your complaint;
  • Make a claim for judicial review if you think you have been directly affected by an unlawful act or decision of an NHS body, and
  • Receive compensation if you have been harmed.

Who should I complain to?

You can complain either to the service that you are unhappy with, or you can complain to your local primary care trust (PCT) that commissioned the service.

When should I complain?

As soon as possible. Complaints should normally be made within 12 months of the date of the event that you are complaining about, or as soon as the matter first came to your attention.

The time limit can sometimes be extended (so long as it is still possible to investigate the complaint). An extension might be possible, such as in situations where it would have been difficult for you to complain earlier, for example, when you were grieving or undergoing trauma.

When do I start?

Since April 2009, the NHS has run a simple complaints process, which has two stages.

Ask your hospital or trust for a copy of its complaints procedure, which will explain how to proceed. Your first step will normally be to raise the matter (in writing or by speaking to them) with the practitioner, e.g. the nurse or doctor concerned, or with their organisation, which will have a complaints manager. This is called local resolution, and most cases are resolved at this stage.

If you are still unhappy, you can refer the matter to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, who is independent of the NHS and government. Call 0345 015 4033.

Who can help?

Making a complaint can be daunting, but help is available.

Patient Advice and Liaison Service

Officers from the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) are available in hospitals. They offer confidential advice, support and information on health-related matters to patients, their families and their carers.

You can find your local PALS office at the Office Directory at PALS Online.

Things to think about when complaining

If you decide to make a complaint it is important to consider what you want to happen. Are you content with an apology, do you want action to be taken against a member of staff, or do you want a change to the system?

Whatever action you are seeking, make this clear.

Before you make your complaint, make a note of the relevant events, dates, times, names and conversations and include all necessary details. Your notes will also help you to remember all the details in the future. Processing a complaint can take a while and you might be asked to verify some information at a later stage.

Whether you decide to complain orally or in writing, try to make your explanations as short and clear as possible. Focus on the main issues, and leave out irrelevant details. If you can, talk through what you want to say with someone else, or ask them to read what you have written before you send it. If you complain in writing, keep a copy of everything you post, and make a note of when you sent it.