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Since the lockdown began in March, the work of nurses and other frontline staff has never been more critical. As a nurse, I know that what you do is important and really makes a difference to the perceptions people have about healthcare.
My career in a number of busy emergency departments showed me how easily things can go wrong and that tensions can run high very quickly. But it also proved to me that the way we react and respond makes a huge difference, both to the way we are seen and to the number of complaints we receive.
NHS staff who handle complaints are key members of the team. Their role is to make sure that people are listened to and that mistakes are flagged so they don’t happen again.
It is vital that they are supported in their often challenging work, and that complaints teams receive the clinical information they need to respond to concerns. As an emergency department nurse, I know how difficult that can be when workloads are high and staff are already under immense pressure.
I have seen many formal complaints avoided where clinical staff address issues ‘head on’ and where concerns are resolved at the time. As nurses, you should be very proud of those instances. Share them with your teams and use them as a learning tool in the same way that formal complaints should be viewed.
“Public bodies too often see complaints negatively, not as a learning tool that can be used to improve their service”
While there are so many examples of excellent complaint handling in the NHS, standards are not always consistent. Recent research by the Parliamentary and Health Ombudsman (PHSO) highlighted three main areas that need to change.
There is no single vision for how staff are expected to handle and resolve complaints.
Staff do not get consistent access to complaints handling training to support them in what is a complex role, which should be recognised as a professional skill.
Public bodies too often see complaints negatively, not as a learning tool that can be used to improve their service.
There is currently a public consultation underway to change this and to implement a Complaint Standards Framework, which offers clear, consistent guidelines for the NHS. It is an opportunity for complaints handlers, members of the public – and, crucially, frontline NHS staff such as nurses – to tell us what they would like to see to improve complaints handling in public services. We welcome your input into this important work.
PHSO undertook large-scale evidence gathering and conversations with with complaint handlers, NHS and social care regulators, advocacy groups and other organisations. The Complaint Standards Framework as it currently stands is based on this research.
The framework focuses on four key areas.
- Promoting a learning and improvement culture: Too often, organisations can be defensive about complaints, rather than see an opportunity to learn and improve services;
- Positively seeking feedback: When organisations proactively seek feedback from people who use their services, and resolve concerns promptly, it can help prevent issues escalating into a protracted complaints process;
- Being thorough and fair: There is no consistent guidance on what standards staff should be meeting, including how long it should take to receive a response to a complaint. The Complaint Standards Framework provides a model for service delivery which holds all NHS organisations to the same standard;
- Giving fair and accountable decisions: An effective complaint handling system is accountable. Organisations should make sure they investigate the complaint thoroughly, acknowledge any failings and apologise if necessary and give clear, evidence-based explanations for decisions and action.
So far, the consultation has been successful, with around 300 people sharing their views. But without your insight as nurses, it won’t paint the full picture of what the NHS needs. We need your feedback – please take a few minutes to answer our survey, and help us to make complaints count.
In addition to the survey, PHSO is holding a live webinar this Thursday. The event will feature key talks from the ombudsman Rob Behrens, alongside a panel of senior staff from across the NHS, its regulators, and those representing patient voices. There will also be an opportunity for you to put your questions about the framework to our panel.
So please join with us to continue to make good complaints handling something every nurse sees as a positive part of the role.
Lindsay Etherington is lead clinician, Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman