The short answer is yes. You can complain about your treatment while it is ongoing if you are concerned about any aspect of your care.  In fact, the sooner you raise an issue, the more likely it is to be resolved quickly.

It is understandable that you may feel embarrassed about complaining while you are in the middle of treatment, particularly if it concerns either a doctor or nurse, but a complaint is not the same as a legal claim. Think of it as constructive feedback which will help not only you but others who have had a similar experience.

Why might I complain?

There are a number of factors which could prompt you to complain. Your concerns could be directly connected with your own treatment such as late diagnosis, delays in seeing a specialist, last minute cancellation of an operation or failure to administer appropriate pain relief. Or it could be a problem you perceive with the hospital more generally including poor communication by staff, worries over cleanliness, or discrimination because of your age.

How do I make a complaint?

Deciding who to complain to is the first decision. You are most likely to want to direct your complaint to the service provider (i.e. the hospital, GP or dentist) rather than the body which commissioned the service (the Clinical Commissioning Group for secondary care and NHS England for primary care).

Every hospital has a complaints procedure (which all NHS organisations are required to have under the NHS constitution). The starting point is an informal process which encourages you to raise any concerns verbally with the person in charge of your care. This is often the quickest way to resolve the problem as your concern may be something that can be easily fixed or explained.

If you feel unable to speak to someone directly, you can also feedback your concerns via a feedback form which you can access either via the hospital website or by asking a member of staff (often reception) for a copy.

Making a formal complaint

If you feel the informal process is not working, you can trigger a more formal procedure providing you do so within 12 months of the problem occurring or 12 months from when you first became aware of the problem. This timing can be adjusted if there is a good reason. You will find details of the person to whom you need to address your written complaint in the hospital’s complaints procedure which the hospital is required to produce on request. It is at this point you may appreciate some help in navigating your way through the procedure.

Can anyone help me with my complaint?

Yes, there are several bodies which can help you. The Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) is available in each hospital and a PALS representative can help you resolve your concerns informally in the first instance. If this doesn’t work, you can escalate your complaint through more formal channels, supported by the PALS representative who can support you throughout the process.

The NHS Complaints Independent Advocacy Service is available via your local authority and is there to support people who are considering making a complaint. For instance, in Warwickshire, details of the service can be accessed via their website. The PALS representative can also help you access this service if you need help doing so.

Both Healthwatch and the Citizens’ Advice Bureau provide information and support.

Other ways of making your views known

Many hospitals also have a Family and Friends Test 

which they encourage patients to complete when they have finished their treatment (notices promoting this service are often prominently displayed around the waiting areas). If you are not actively offered the opportunity to participate you can either pick up a form from reception or access it via the hospital’s website. GPs and dentists also participate in this scheme and usually have the forms available in the waiting area.

If you have had certain types of surgery (knee and hip replacements, groin and varicose vein surgery) you can feed back on the quality of care you have received via Patient Reported Outcomes Measures (PROMs). Hospitals have been collecting this data since 2009 and publish it monthly.

What happens next?

Once you have submitted your complaint, you should receive an acknowledgement within three working days plus an offer to discuss the handling of your complaint. The organisation will investigate and then respond to you in writing. The response should detail the findings of the investigation, what is being done as a result, and an apology as appropriate.  It will also include details of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman  to whom you can escalate your complaint if you are not happy with the response (or the Local Government Ombudsman if your complaint relates to social care).

Your views count

The NHS is actively trying to encourage patients to feed back on their experience, not least as it helps it to improve its service. It can seem daunting to raise a complaint against a large organisation but there are plenty of people who can help, support and guide you on the process not least the NHS Choices website which gives comprehensive information. Although it is very unlikely that you will need legal advice at this stage (unless you believe that you are the victim of negligence), we can advise you how draft the initial letter of complaint. To give reassurance, in nine cases out of ten, any issues raised by patients are usually resolved quickly without the need to invoke a formal procedure. 

About the author

Jeanette Whyman Partner

Jeanette is head of the medical negligence team. Having worked previously for Hospital Trusts, Jeanette has extensive knowledge of hospital practices and procedures. This means that she is able to assess a case speedily and to anticipate the other parties' position – this enables her to put forward the best possible case on behalf of her client.