‘Easier’ Health Complaints System

Proposals to simplify the process for NHS patients in Wales to make complaints are to be unveiled. Health Minister Edwina Hart will outline the NHS Redress Measure, which it is claimed will also give NHS patients fairer access to compensation.

It will be the first measure proposed by the assembly government measure to be scrutinised by AMs under the Government of Wales act.

Patient groups welcomed the legislation which could be in place in 2009. It is hoped the measure will enable lower-value clinical negligence claims to be handled without the need for timely and costly legal action in the courts. It is not clear yet what the ceiling amount for claims will be, but NHS trusts will manage the claims and settle any issues of compensation.

One patient who could be helped by the new system is Janis Ward, of Conwy, who waited for three years for an operation to treat a badly broken foot. She then wrote to Wrexham Maelor Hospital asking for a copy of the patients’ charter with a view to taking her complaints about 15 cancelled appointments further.

Throughout this time, Mrs Ward said she was in so much pain she was unable to work as a teacher, and that her home became “a prison”. She said she complained to the hospital verbally and in a letter and also wrote to Conwy MP Betty Williams in April.

Within weeks of the MP complaining to the hospital, Mrs Ward said she was called in for the operation on her foot, and she is recovering from the surgery. “I will take my complaints further if the operation doesn’t sort my foot out,” said Mrs Ward. “Maybe I wouldn’t have these problems if I’d had the operation earlier.”

Ms Hart said the proposal would open the way to simplifying how patients could seek redress from the NHS, making the system more coherent and accessible. The measure would also give NHS bodies the tools to remedy their own mistakes and to learn from them, she said.

“When things do go wrong, patients should be able to raise concerns openly and know that lessons will be learned by the organisation and that they will get the help and support they need or compensation, if appropriate,” said Ms Hart. “This measure is not about throwing money at people in the hope that they will take their complaints away, but about dealing with people properly and fairly, and if possible, effectively addressing concerns.”

Peter Johns, director of the board of Community Health Councils in Wales, said the scheme was “an opportunity for timely and appropriate action by the NHS”. He said many patients were left unsatisfied with the responses they received from hospitals under the current complaints system.

“Often patients with complaints are just looking for an apology and assurances it won’t happen again, they aren’t always looking for compensation,” he said. “But often they get an apology with all sorts of reasons and excuses which almost makes the original apology completely pointless. These may be relatively low level issues but they can aggravate people’s feelings as well as their already damaged bodies.”

Katherine Matthews from the Patients Association said the complexities of the current system put people off complaining, that while they welcomed the measure, it was overdue.

The new system will not be a compulsory process and patients will have the choice whether to settle through the new process or take legal action. However, if a patient accepts a settlement, they will then waive their right to pursue any further action.