Policy briefing


Written complaints about nurses have risen, with the profession receiving the second-highest number among NHS staff in England, figures reveal.

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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 statute-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 between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017, covering secondary and primary care.

What’s new?

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

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, and represents a 9.8% increase in complaints about nurses, compared with the number in 2015-16.

Complaints about the medical profession accounted for 41.1% of the total involving an NHS professional, an increase of 7.4% on 2015-16.

Responding to the figures, the RCN said that, as the front-line staff of the health service, nurses often ‘bear the brunt’ of patient dissatisfaction, regardless of whether or not they are to blame.

Implications for nurses

The RCN’s 2014 guidance on handling and learning from comments, concerns and complaints advises nurses to:

  • Be responsive – the way you respond will set the tone for for the rest of the conversation and any subsequent processes.
  • Move things on – if you can’t resolve a problem or complaint quickly, or escalate it to a senior member of staff, ensure that the person raising the concern is given all the information they need to make a formal complaint.
  • Follow procedure – adhere to local policies and procedures for such situations.
  • Know your responsibilities and rights – remember that your first duty, as laid out in the Code, is to those in your care, even if that means having to report your own mistakes or those made by others.


Expert comment

Cliff Evans
Picture: Nathan Clarke

Emergency nurse consultant and qualified lecturer Cliff Evans

‘Care delivery can go wrong for a multitude of simple or complex reasons. With the current emphasis on speed of services, emergency departments 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 it provides, and it takes skill to avoid becoming defensive.

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

‘It’s 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 practice 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.’

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