At a glance: NHS comes under fire for ‘poor’ comms

What’s happened? The number of people asking for their complaints about the NHS to be independently reviewed because they were not resolved by local health services has more than doubled in the past year – and the biggest problems involve poor communication and information for patients.

Who says?
The Healthcare Commission, the body that handles complaints that NHS trusts cannot resolve. It received more than 8,000 requests from people wanting their complaint reviewed in the 12 months to August. There were only 3,700 requests in 2003/04.

So there's a greater need to engage patients, then...
More than half of all complaints were about acute hospital trusts, including foundation trusts. A third concerned Primary Care Trusts and individual practitioners, such as GPs. The Healthcare Commission wants the NHS to improve staff training on issues such as appropriate ways to break bad news.

This suggests a requirement for more effective internal comms
Yes – PROs admitted to PRWeek that the main area for complaint was likely to be insensitive staff attitudes. One London PCT comms director said there were still examples of 'people being told by letter they are dying'. Misunderstandings, such as doctors giving medical explanations to patients that the latter do not follow, are also a source of complaint.

So this is comms at a micro level?
Yes, but there is also a broader issue about getting patient input into what information they would like to have. PCT comms heads insist they are working on this.

What are the other problem areas?
One director of comms at an acute trust said many complaints were likely to be a result of people feeling they had been ignored. A large number of complaints revolve around safe and effective clinical practice and the experience of patients.

Anything else?
As more than one PRO points out, it is worth remembering that the Healthcare Commission was created under the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Act 2003 and only started work in April 2004. Therefore the rise in complaints may be down to patient confidence in appealing to a new independent body for redress.

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