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Why the NHS can’t afford to ignore complaints

Martin Ellingham, Senior Product Manager at Aptean

The NHS is in the greatest danger of collapse than ever before.

Patient complaints – the hidden virus in the NHS

Complaints are a major issue for the NHS. It’s one thing attracting criticism from outside forces pursuing their own agendas. But, when the criticism comes from the very people the health system was set up to look after, there quickly becomes a problem.

The bad news is that the number of complaints is rising steadily. During 2016/17, the NHS received 208,400 written complaints – an increase of 4.9% on the previous year, according to NHS Digital. This represents an average of more than 550 complaints every day; far from an ideal scenario.

Should this trend continue, the NHS will be faced with a catastrophic loss of patient trust. This could be the beginning of the end for the NHS. With private healthcare companies already taking a larger share of tendered contracts, NHS services could find it even harder to make the case for why they should be chosen as preferred providers.

Trust in the NHS is everything, and complaints threaten to fatally undermine public confidence in their healthcare service as it passes its 70th birthday.

Four reasons the NHS is receiving more complaints than ever

  1. Funding cuts lead to reductions and delays in services

The NHS is under huge financial pressure, leaving providers in a perilous position. By 2022/23, the NHS in England could be facing a funding gap of more than £24bn.

Funding growth throughout 2018/19 will only reach 0.4% – a real-term fall in spending on healthcare per person that leaves providers underfunded to the tune of £4bn.

This cuts into NHS organisations’ ability to deliver high-quality and timely care, which will only lead to a further increase in the number of complaints.

  1. An ageing population means more people need care

As funding gets tighter, demand for NHS services is increasing. An ageing population means more people are living with ongoing and complicated conditions, putting services and personnel under an unprecedented amount of strain. This makes it increasingly difficult for NHS providers to meet ambitious waiting time targets while still providing the highest quality of care.

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Added to this is the growing crisis in social care – all of which will see more and more complaints directed towards the NHS.

  1. The NHS is facing an urgent staffing crisis

Two-thirds of trusts say that maintaining an effective workforce is their number one challenge due to major shortfalls in medical staff. The teams on the ground have also voiced their unease at the situation, with eight out of ten health professionals raising concerns about a chronic lack of staff.

This places patient safety at risk and will only serve to undermine trust in the NHS. The former Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, set ambitious recruitment targets that are highly likely to be missed, with the NHS losing a growing number of doctors and nurses from EU countries as part of the fallout from the EU Referendum in 2016.

  1. Patients have higher expectations than ever before

The rising number of complaints is also partly the result of the UK population becoming more demanding. A nation of consumers, we've come to expect high quality and convenience in every part of our lives – and, when we’re made to wait, we're more likely to complain.

The NHS is working hard to improve standards, but it continues to face an uphill battle to close the gap between expectation and a reality in which you can order your groceries online and have them delivered on the same day, but you’d struggle to get an appointment with your GP in the same week you called them.

The true cost of poor complaint management

A rise in complaints might not sound like a dangerous thing, but a 2015 document from the Ombudsman highlighted what's known as ‘the human cost of poor complaints handling within the NHS’.

The report found that nearly half of written complaints were about how complaints and issues had been handled, providing potential to destroy patient trust in the NHS. If people believe their complaints aren’t being listened to, how can they be expected to believe that services will improve?

In 2013, an enquiry into the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust led Robert Francis QC to state that poor complaints handling had allowed problems to remain unchecked and poor practices to persist.

“A health service that does not listen to complaints is unlikely to reflect its patients’ needs,” he wrote.

NHS trusts have to prioritise complaint handling to improve care

Effective complaint handling is critical for the NHS and should be a top priority. Otherwise, it’ll see a reduction in patient safety lead to a lack of trust in its healthcare services. Part of the problem is the complexity of current complaint-handling systems. The NHS is keen to be transparent and learn from complaints, but the literature and processes involved can be complicated. On top of that, administration systems are often out-of-date, paper-based and fragmented.

Fortunately for NHS trusts, there are ways to improve their systems and transform the way they handle complaints. New technology offers them a future in which complaints are acted upon quickly across the entire NHS – leading to better care and increased patient trust. It’ll also take the pressure off of already-stretched medical teams.

The NHS has reached a remarkable milestone of providing universal healthcare for 70 years, and better complaint handling will be a critical part of helping it to thrive for another 70 to come. The first step, however, is to recognise the problem, diagnose its symptoms and prescribe a course of action.

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