On the eve of the publication of the Francis report, Katherine Murphy, chief executive of The Patients Association says each patient complaint should be viewed as a 'learning opportunity' for the NHS.
As the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman said in her review of complaint handling for 2011/12 “each complaint that is not fully addressed or investigated is a missed opportunity for the NHS to continue to improve.” Whatever the Francis Inquiry recommends, this must become a new rallying motto for the NHS – from board to ward.
Our own recent report ‘Complaint handling in NHS Trusts’ reveals huge variations in the way in which hospitals display information about how to make a complaint, shows support to patients is incomplete and unclear, and suggests 35% of staff have insufficient training in complaints handling.
In short the NHS must be more open to patient feedback and concerns, every case is a chance to improve services, ensure mistakes are not repeated and ultimately deliver better outcomes and care in the future.
Despite the shocking catalogue of poor care uncovered at Stafford Hospital, and numerous reports since, our research shows significant pockets of the NHS have not led the kind of changes needed to prevent another scandal occurring. Our report sets out the ways in which we feel the system could be improved for patients, relatives and carers seeking answers.
But there are three other issues which must be urgently addressed before the dust is allowed to settle on the Francis Report.
Firstly, more and more care is being provided by healthcare assistants; they should receive better training and be properly supervised and regulated as they are increasingly taking on the caring tasks traditionally carried out by nursing staff. Patients deserve to have confidence in all the health professionals they depend on.
Secondly, the Government must support NHS regulators with the funding that they need to thoroughly investigate concerns about patient care and safety. The recent announcement of the ‘Friends and Family Test’, for example, is welcome but cannot lead to change unless there is capacity to look into and act upon any concerns.
Thirdly, there needs to be serious review of the impact of the NHS’s £20 billion efficiency programme. Mounting evidence, from our charity’s Helpline, the CQC and others is pointing to appalling shortcomings in the culture of care and compassion across the NHS. We also know rising waiting times, cancelled operations and staffing shortages are adding stress and discomfort to far too many patients’ experiences.
Reforming both the culture and process of patient complaints would show that the Government and the NHS is finally implementing the lessons not just from Staffordshire but nationwide. A new approach is now needed, one which views each complaint as a ‘learning opportunity’ and not a problem to sweep under the carpet.
Reviews and recommendations are only as significant as the changes they inspire, the relatives of patients who were so shamefully let down in Staffordshire and many thousands more rightly have high expectations.
In the aftermath of the publication of the Francis Report and the inevitable media scrum for headlines, our first thoughts must be for those families and friends who lost loved ones so tragically. They are owed lasting change.