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Communication errors behind third of hospital complaints


Poor communication, treatment and errors in diagnosis have once again topped the list of causes of hospital complaints investigated by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

A report published today on complaints made about NHS hospitals in England during 2014-15 suggests little change in the issues sparking criticism from patients.

Non-medical aspects of patient care – cited as communication issues or staff attitudes – were a factor in almost half of all complaints investigated last year by the ombudsman Dame Julie Mellor.

“We are publishing this data to help hospital trusts identify problems and take action to ensure trust in the healthcare system remains high”

Julie Mellor

Poor communication, including quality and accuracy of information, was a factor in 35% of all complaints – though this was lower than the 42% in 2013-14.

Of the complaints involving communication, 71% referred to issues between the hospital and the patient or their family, and the remainder to issues between staff within the same hospital or between different ones.

Other reasons for complaints in 2014-15 were staff attitude and behaviour – factors in 21% complaints and a similar percentage to last year.

In addition, failure to diagnose was cited in 31% of complaints – a slight decrease on 2013-14 when the proportion was 35%.

Meanwhile, complaints about clinical care and treatment factored in 38% of all complaints investigated by the ombudsman in 2014-15 – similar to the number in 2013-14.

The report – titled Complaints about acute trusts 2014-15 – revealed that the number of enquiries the ombudsman received and investigated about acute trusts increased in 2014-15.

It received 8,853 complaints about NHS hospitals compared to 8,178 in 2013-14. The ombudsman completed 1,652 investigations about acute trusts in 2014-15, compared to 852 the year before.

In 2014-15 it upheld 36% of the cases it investigated about the NHS and 44% about acute trusts.

Dame Julie said: “We know that there are many factors that influence the number of complaints hospitals receive, such as organisational size, demographics and whether they actively encourage feedback from patients.

“We are publishing this data to help hospital trusts identify problems and take action to ensure trust in the healthcare system remains high,” she added.


Readers' comments (4)

  • michael stone

    A paper I was reading this morning, said [unless my recall is flawed] that the most common reason for a complaint seems to be that staff were not apologising when something went wrong.

    It seems to me that every report mainly confirms that some hospitals are better at this stuff than others, and that improving the situation is difficult.

    There are different things going on here, as well: most complaints about poor communication, are probably 'true' from the position of patients and relatives. But complaints about 'failure to diagnose' are more complex - that involves something which can easily look very different from the lay and clinical sides, and is much harder to properly explain to 'the man on the street'.

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  • Often the lay man on the street may be more well informed than those that seek to differentiate themselves.

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  • michael stone

    Darren Archibald | 22-Sep-2015 7:41 pm


    But diagnosis is intrinsically different from good communication - most of us can tell when we are seeing poor communication, but that isn't true when the issue is how competent a clinician is as a diagnostician.

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  • I agree with this.

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