Health Ombudsman publishes further details of the new ‘NHS Complaint Standards’

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) has published further details relating to the new ‘NHS Complaint Standards’ (the Standards).

Following the PHSO’s presentation of its report Making Complaints Count, which described the NHS complaints system as being in need of urgent reform, the PHSO published a draft ‘Complaints Standards Framework’ in July 2020.

The PHSO subsequently launched a public consultation on the draft Standards, which closed on 18 September 2020. A report summarising the responses to that consultation was published on 24 March 2021.

Feedback on the draft Standards was broadly positive, with 91 per cent of all survey respondents supportive of the Standards. Guidance provided in the draft Standards on progressing multi-organisation complaints was particularly welcomed.

Responses also emphasised that more practical detail was needed on how NHS organisations are expected to deliver the Standards. In addition, they highlighted, and the report accepts, that developing a system for sharing learning from complaints regionally and nationally, poses a significant challenge and will require further exploration and development.

The report states that 69 per cent of NHS staff responding to the consultation said there were no factors that would prevent their organisation from embedding the Standards. However, those who felt there were barriers to implementation commonly cited a potential lack of ‘buy in’ from senior staff and the need for significant culture change (a point which was echoed by many participants in the PHSO’s engagement events) as possible challenges.

Responses also highlighted issues with My Expectations, the 2014 report upon which the Standards are based. In response, the PHSO have accepted that there may be benefit in a review of My Expectations. The consultation report states the PHSO will discuss this with Healthwatch and the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, with whom any review would be undertaken, later in the year.

Several changes have been made to the Standards following the consultation.

Key changes include:

  • An expanded executive summary which clarifies the aims and objectives of the Standards.
  • Redrafting to ensure better cohesion with other relevant standards and duties, such as the Duty of Candour, NHS Constitution and 2009 NHS Complaints Regulations.
  • Simplification or clarification of various expectations, including the addition of indicative timescales for the handling of complaints.

In light of the consultation, the PHSO have published a document titled NHS Complaint Standards: Summary of expectations’ which summarises what the Standards seek to achieve. It states they are intended to produce a “better, more consistent approach to complaint handling across organisations delivering NHS services” and to result in “more effective reporting and learning from complaints”. The Standards will emphasise four key pillars of complaint handling:

  • Promoting a just and learning culture (re-named following consultation feedback, previously titled “promoting a learning and improvement culture”)
  • Welcoming complaints in a positive way
  • Giving fair and accountable responses (re-named following consultation feedback, previously titled “giving fair and accountable decisions”)
  • Being thorough and fair

The PHSO have also published a Model Complaint Handling Process and a wealth of additional guidance, which were also created in response to consultation feedback.

The Standards themselves are not at this time available on the PHSO website but are currently being tested in pilot sites. Once introduced the Standards will apply to “NHS organisations in England and independent healthcare providers who deliver NHS-funded care”. Providers should note that the summary of expectations states organisations to whom the Standards apply will be expected to publish a local complaints procedure that meets the Standards and all other relevant complaint handling regulations.

The PHSO state that the Standards will be “refined and introduced across the NHS in 2022”.

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