How to complain about healthcare services

There are things you can do if you have had problems with your care.

What you can do

Sometimes things go wrong when a hospital or GP treats you. This can be distressing, and you might feel angry and upset.

Often, the first and easiest way to sort things out is to speak to the people involved. If you feel comfortable, try speaking to your doctor or consultant. Or talk to a nurse or member of your healthcare team.

If you can't sort out problems by talking to your healthcare team, you might want to make a complaint.

Who can help?

Some people find it more helpful to speak to someone for guidance on what to do first. There are independent organisations that can help you resolve the issue with your hospital. Or they can support you if you choose to make a formal complaint.

Depending on where you live, they are called:

  • the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) – England
  • the Patient Advice and Support Service – Scotland
  • the Patient and Client Council – Northern Ireland
  • Llais – Wales

Making a complaint about NHS care

The NHS has a complaints procedure. You can make a complaint using this procedure if you are the patient. You can also complain on behalf of someone else. But the hospital or medical practice needs to agree that you can represent the person.

Making a formal complaint

The first step is to contact the complaints manager. There's one in every hospital and large medical practice. They will give you a copy of the complaints procedure.

You can also complain to the commissioner of services. The commissioner pays for the NHS service you use. Contact NHS England to complain about your GP practice or pharmacist. They are called primary care services.

Contact your local integrated care board (ICB) or health board to complain about your hospital. They are called secondary care services.

Your letter or email

You should make a complaint as soon as you can. Generally, it is best to do so within 12 months of the event or as soon as you find out there's a problem. But you might have reasons for not complaining within the time limit. In that case, the complaints manager can extend it.

You can make a complaint by speaking to someone (a verbal complaint), or by writing a letter or email. It is vital to keep a record of a complaint. It is easier if it's in writing.

Address your letter or email to the complaints manager. Or if you can't find out who that is, address it to the Chief Executive of the hospital. You can also address it to the manager of the clinic or health centre. Your letter or email should include:

  • information on the issue you’re complaining about
  • when and where it happened
  • information on the people involved and their job or position
  • information about what you’ve already done – for example, whether you have already spoken to someone
  • questions you would like them to answer
  • what you’d like to happen
  • your name, address and contact details

Ask the complaints manager to investigate it as part of the NHS complaints procedure.

What happens next

They should let you know that they have received your complaint. This is usually within 3 to 5 working days of receiving it. They will tell you when to expect the results of the investigation. How long this takes will depend on what the complaint is about and how complicated it is. 

You will usually receive a written response. This is once the people involved have looked at your complaint. If there are any delays, the investigators should let you know the reason why.

It might happen that you are not happy after the formal complaint procedure. In that case, ask for a more senior manager to look into it.

Independent review

If you are not satisfied by the senior manager's review, you can complain to the Ombudsman. They make final decisions about complaints in the NHS. The Ombudsman is independent of the NHS and Government.

You can contact:

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

Mosley Street
M2 3HQ

Helpline: 0345 015 4033 (8:30am to 5:00pm on Monday to Thursday, 8:30am to 12pm on Friday)

Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman

Progressive House
33 Wellington Place

Freephone: 0800 34 34 24 (9:00am to 1:00pm and 2:00 pm to 4:00pm Monday to Friday)

Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

Bridgeside House 
99 McDonald Road

Freephone: 0800 377 7330 (9:00am to 1:00pm on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. 1:00pm to 5:00pm on Tuesday and Thursday)

Public Services Ombudsman for Wales

1 Ffordd yr Hen Gae
CF35 5LJ

Tel: 0300 790 0203 (10:00am to 12:30pm and 1:30pm to 4:00pm Monday to Friday)

Taking legal advice

Some people want to take legal action if they're not satisfied with the result of the Ombudsman.

Before taking any legal action, it is important to think about the stress involved and the cost. It can be costly and could take a long time. You'll need a solicitor specialising in medical claims.

You can get information about solicitors from:

  • your local Citizens Advice
  • the Law Society of England and Wales
  • the Law Society of Scotland
  • the Law Society of Northern Ireland

Making a complaint about private treatment

To complain about private treatment, ask the manager about their complaints procedure. You can also ask the healthcare insurance company for advice if they pay for your care.

Sometimes it might be that you are not satisfied with the hospital's response. In that case, you can contact the Independent Sector Complaints Adjudication Service (ISCAS). 

For private healthcare, you need to use the private company's complaints procedure. But you can complain through the NHS for private healthcare paid by the NHS.

You can use the NHS complaints procedure if you want to complain about anything to do with the referral by the NHS. For example, if the referral took a long time.

Giving feedback

Some people don't want to complain but would like to provide feedback about their care.

You can contact:

  • Care Quality Commission - England
  • Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority – Northern Ireland
  • Healthcare Improvement Scotland - Scotland
  • Healthcare Inspectorate Wales - Wales

You can also give feedback and read about other people's experiences on the Care Opinion website. The site helps the NHS and private hospitals find out what people think about their services.

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