Medical complaints processingHow strong is your complaints procedure?

A tearful Ann Clwyd broke down in a BBC interview after her husband passed away at a hospital due to poor care; her concerns had fallen on deaf ears. After the death, Ann received over 2,500 letters describing situations that were similar to those she herself had faced. Common themes included a lack of response to complaints, and their mishandling without action.

Whilst death may be a part of life that cannot be escaped and we will all face the prospect of having to bid farewell to our loved ones, if a life is lost that could have otherwise been saved, it is an even larger loss. In an environment whose sole existence is to preserve life, such losses are simply unacceptable. Sadly, nothing productive can be gained from pointing fingers and blaming people or organisations. We should all acknowledge that there are some flaws in the current complaints system and we should all work together to eradicate this in harmony.

As many are aware, Ann Clwyd is also a Labour MP who is leading the government-commissioned enquiry into hospital complaints procedures. A report released on 29th October 2013 addressed many issues including the reasons why people complain, their experiences throughout a complaints process and how improvements can be made.

At DCC, we’re data specialists who have operated within the healthcare industry for well over ten years. Because of this, we feel a genuine level of care, and we believe all those who can should help to resolve issues such as those highlighted within the report. Through working with different healthcare organisations, we have learnt how accuracies and improvements in data management, processing and analysing can allow staff to concentrate on what matters most, save hospitals money and, vitally, ensure patients’ concerns are addressed faster and more effectively. Because each one of us will require the help and assistance of hospitals and healthcare organisations at some point, if DCC is able to smoothen the process of data management to facilitate better care it will bring us a great deal of pride and joy. With that in mind, we’ve taken a look at the current complaints procedure and suggested some areas that could be improved upon.

Current Complaints Cycle

Taken from the October NHS Complaints Report as linked to above, the current complaints process within healthcare is fairly easy to follow. In summary, CCGs and hospitals deal with complaints; any complaints that are not resolved at their level the complaints will go to the Health Service Ombudsman. If the process itself is so simple, where do things go wrong?

Identifying problem areas

If we step back, there are two major factors at play. Whilst the first may be obvious, looking at the way in which complaints are handled, the second requires us to identify why people are complaining. Research within this field highlights a number of recurring factors, which include a lack of care and compassion from staff, leading to below-average levels of communication that leave patients and their loved ones confused and often fearful. Additionally, another pain point includes the lack of basic resources such as extra pillows and blankets.

Whilst the actual complaints procedure itself should work flawlessly, a number of factors may cause additional distress and frustration. Surprisingly, many people are not aware of how to make a complaint; additionally, patients and their carers may be left in a state of fear because they do not know if their complaints will be dealt with the utmost sensitivity and confidentiality, nor what options are open to them should their complaint not be dealt with successfully. Overall, there is a lack of successful communication of the complaints procedure, which contributes to poor levels of responsiveness. The report highlights this directly: “People were often unhappy that their concerns were not addressed on the spot by staff. Had they been resolved then, people would not have had to make a formal complaint.” Many patients and family members also believe that complaints should be dealt on an individual basis, rather than simply following procedure on every single occasion.Additionally, those who did manage to successfully navigate through the complaints procedure often felt as though nothing was learnt from the process, that outcomes were not as good as expected and delays were often repeated. The report also tells us that organisations working in and with the NHS often backed up these patient concerns. Integrated solutions to improve complaints procedures

Because of the scale of the problem, the NHS needs assistance in implementing any solution. Whilst there are aspects the NHS can take on board themselves, such as training staff to be more compassionate and the elimination of communication barriers, in other aspects they will need outside help from people who care just as much.

Reducing the number of complaints

Before working towards improving the complaints procedure, the first port of call should be to reduce the number of complaints registered, which can be achieved by monitoring patient experience, feedback from friends and family and outcome data, and using such insights to make improvements. Obviously, it is important for this data to be accurate, stored and analysed purposefully in order to provide information for decision-making that benefits the patients. Mapping this data out on a dynamic interactive dashboard can help health care organisations view data in a different light, facilitating a visualisation of patterns and correlations that can be represented in different forms. How can this be done? Find out by reading our articles on patient satisfaction, improved healthcare communication and feedback incentives.The same approach should be applied to all regulatory data. PLACE, Estates and infection control data presented on a dashboard can provide many unique insights, leading to cost saving and improvements in care and the environment where care takes place.

Producing a seamless complaints management system

Depending on the structure of a particular health care organisation, complaints may be registered orally (over the phone or face to face), via email, complaint forms and letters sent in. Because they are delivered from multiple sources and in many different forms, management is normally through a central department using a system, registry or database. As complaints are of a sensitive and personal nature, it is important that the information within them is accurately processed and securely stored. Automating the process of complaints data upholds accuracy, and so the next step is ensuring complaints are addressed correctly. The best systems will allow complaints to be organised using urgency, date registered and specific areas highlighted. A dynamic, interactive dashboard – such as those we have used through the procedures linked above, can also highlight patterns in complaints including recurring concerns or complaints from the same areas. Additionally, complaints can also be consolidated against other collected information; for example, complaints about the cleanliness of a particular ward can be compared against infection control data, or actual money or time spent cleaning the particular ward. In this way, a dashboard can help organisations to understand and deal with complaints, but also – crucially – to ensure recurring patterns are identified so that they are sufficiently dealt with in future.

Greater understanding of complaints

Taking complaint information to the next level, few who complain will do so in a simple-to-process tick-box procedure, meaning that organisations must instead process free-text complaints that may touch on multiple issues. In these instances, text and sentiment analytics software can bring the processing of complaints and patient experience data to another level.

Through our work, we have supported awareness campaigns, clinical trials, activity analysis, screening and many more, highlighting how passionate we are about improving services in the health and public sectors. If you would like to discuss your own campaigns or procedures and how we might be able to help you, please give us a call on 0208 903 5432 or email We will be more than happy to share our experience, views and expertise with you, or can provide a free, no-obligation workshop at your premises to guide you in the right direction.


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