Policy briefing

Complaints about the NHS

The latest policy on complaints and what it means for healthcare professionals.

The latest policy on complaints and what it means for healthcare professionals.

Picture: iStock

Essential facts

NHS Digital has published statistics on written complaints about the NHS for 2016-17, which reveal that complaints about nurses have risen.

The health service complaints procedure is the statutorily based mechanism for dealing with complaints about NHS care and treatment. All NHS organisations in England are required to operate it.

The latest data cover the number of written complaints made by or on behalf of patients received between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017, covering secondary and primary care.

What’s new?

NHS Digital figures show that, last year, nurses were the subject of the most written complaints after doctors.

A total of 36,800 complaints about nursing were made in 2016-17. This accounts for 22.7% of all 161,700 complaints involving an NHS profession. The new figures represent an increase in complaints about nurses of 9.8% compared with the number for 2015-16.

The figures also show that the number of complaints about the medical profession in 2016-17 was 66,500, which accounts for 41.1% of complaints involving an NHS profession. This represents an increase of 7.4% compared with 2015-16 figures.

Implications for nursing

The statistics show that, overall, the NHS received 208,400 written complaints during 2016-17, up 4.9% on the previous year. This is equivalent to 571 complaints per day.

A complaint can cover a range of issues but is usually recorded under the headings service, subject or professional area.

Inpatient services received the largest number of complaints, at 45,904, followed by outpatient services, at 33,175.

There were 14,622 complaints about emergency services, making up 10% of the total number of service-area complaints in hospital and community health services.

In the breakdown of written complaints by subject area for clinical treatment, ‘accident and emergency’ received 7,378 complaints, making up 14.4% of the total.

The largest proportion of non-clinical complaints relate to ‘communication’. This is followed by ‘patient care’, including nutrition and hydration, and then by ‘values and behaviours of staff’.

The RCN states that it is ‘unacceptable’ that patients do not always receive the best care. However, in highlighting the 40,000 nursing vacancies across England, it adds that the NHS is struggling to deliver the care patients need without the right levels of staff and funding.


Expert comment

Cliff_EvansCliff Evans is an emergency nurse consultant and qualified lecturer

‘Care delivery can go wrong for a multitude of simple or complex reasons. With the current emphasis on speed of services, EDs are increasingly becoming conveyor belt systems. But although the "see me quick, discharge me quick" ethos suits many patients, others require considered decision making.

‘Most complaints centre on ineffective communication and inadequate information. It’s never easy to hear people criticising your workforce or the services they provide, and the option to become defensive requires skilful avoidance.

‘Being open and honest, and communicating realistic goals from the commencement of care, can ensure confrontation is avoided and important issues clarified for patients. Nurses should be able to take good or bad feedback.

‘It’s perfectly okay to apologise to a complainant. Offering an apology does not constitute an acceptance of responsibility and in many cases will de-escalate the concern. We must never forget that complaints offer the opportunity to reflect on our practices and seek ways of doing things better.

‘The 2014 RCN guidance on handling and learning from comments, concerns and complaints provides a foundation for nurses to improve how teams work.’

  • Cliff Evans has been instrumental in turning around Medway NHS Foundation Trust’s emergency department (ED). He has set up a nurse-led collaboration between EDs across south east England to allow staff greater access to training and share best practice.

Find out more


This article is for subscribers only