Skip to content

Although most people are satisfied with the treatment they receive under the NHS, sometimes things can go wrong. Occasionally, treatment may cause you to suffer additional physical injury or sometimes psychological harm, in which case you may want to consider whether you would like a lawyer to investigate a potential clinical negligence claim on your behalf. Even if additional harm was not caused, you may still feel aggrieved and want to consider making a complaint about the treatment you received. How, then, do you go about making NHS complaints? 

If you are not happy with the NHS treatment you receive, whatever the type, you are entitled to make a complaint, have it investigated and receive a full response. At first, it is often best to raise your concerns with the person in charge of your treatment, whether that is your GP or a consultant. They should be able to discuss your concerns and may be able to give you an explanation of what happened.

NHS treatment

NHS complaints may involve treatment received at various types of bodies, which could be your GP surgery, your dentist, optician, hospital trust or primary care trust. If you are not happy with the response you receive from the person in charge of your treatment, you should consider making a formal complaint in writing. Ask for a copy of the complaints procedure of the body you want to complain about: this will tell you to whom formal NHS complaints should be addressed.

When writing your letter of complaint, it is important to remember that the person reviewing it may not be familiar with the circumstances. Don’t assume that they already know what has happened. Make it clear at the start of the letter that you wish to make a formal complaint about your treatment.  Set out clearly but concisely what happened in chronological order. It may be useful to do a timeline of your treatment if your complaint is particularly complicated. You should then state what you want to complain about and why. It may be useful to also state what you wish to achieve by making a complaint, whether you want further investigations or simply an apology and an assurance that it will not happen in the future. Make sure that you provide enough detail for them to be able to identify who you are, to investigate the matter and contact information, so they can respond.

If you are making a complaint on behalf of somebody else, you will normally need their agreement to do so. They may be asked to sign a form to confirm that they are happy for the NHS body to speak with you about their treatment.

Patient Advice and Liaison Service

If you feel that you need assistance with writing your complaint letter, ask someone to help you with it. The Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) may be able to assist with some NHS complaints. PALS is an independent service staffed by NHS employees and volunteers. Every NHS trust has a PALS, often based within the hospital itself. You can ask your hospital if they have a PALS department or search for the nearest PALS on their website.

Independent Complaints Advocacy Service

You could also contact the national Independent Complaints Advocacy Service (ICAS), which has offices across the UK; for your nearest one ask at the hospital or ask PALS. Alternatively, your local Citizens Advice Bureau may be able to assist with writing your letter of complaint.

When the NHS body has received your complaint, they will normally acknowledge receipt and tell you when they expect to be able to respond. This may take a few weeks, possibly longer in complicated matters. Although this can be frustrating, remember that the NHS body will need to carry out a full investigation in order to  provide a detailed response. This may involve speaking to various members of staff and possibly reviewing your medical records, which can take some time.

Once you have received a response, you should review it and see if you are happy with it. If there are any errors or parts of the original complaint you don’t feel have been addressed, you may wish to contact them again for clarification. Usually, this is the end to your complaint and it is not normally necessary to take it any further.

If you are complaining about NHS treatment in Wales, your complaint may be allocated to the NHS Wales Redress Scheme. More details about the scheme are available here.

Health ombudsman and NHS complaints

If you are still unhappy with the response to your complaint, you can consider whether you want to escalate it to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, the independent body which investigates complaints against people providing NHS services. Before the Ombudsman will investigate a complaint, you must have attempted to resolve it by complaining directly to the NHS body involved, as it cannot investigate complaints that have not already been made to the NHS body in question.

Any NHS complaints to the Ombudsman should be made in writing and, again, PALS, ICAS or Citizens Advice Bureaux will be able to help you. The Ombudsman’s contact details are available on their website. After making your complaint to the Ombudsman, they will investigate it and contact you and the NHS body with their recommendations. The Ombudsman cannot assist with certain types of complaint, including complaints about private treatment. Any complaints about private treatment should be made to the provider directly.

You should make the complaint as soon as possible. The longer the time between your treatment and your complaint, the more difficult it will be for you to recall what happened, and the more difficult it will be for the NHS body (and the Ombudsman if necessary) to investigate. In any event, many NHS bodies require complaints to be made within a year of the treatment. In some circumstances it may not be possible to complain within a year, for example, if you are very unwell for this time. In this case, the NHS body may still be willing to investigate your complaint, but you should explain the reason for delay when you make it.

A complaint about NHS treatment is unlikely to provide you with compensation but in most cases it will give you the opportunity to have your concerns investigated and may provide answers about your treatment, and closure on the event.  If you want to make a claim for clinical negligence in relation to your treatment, this can normally be investigated at the same time as your complaint. However, it is important to let your solicitor know about any NHS complaints you are making, as this may affect your claim. In some situations (for example, if you are applying for legal aid to investigate your potential claim), you will need to complain to the NHS body involved before commencing an investigation of a claim. Your solicitor will be able to advise you when this is necessary.

If you do choose to make a complaint prior to making a claim for clinical negligence, it is important to remember that you have three years to bring the claim and that investigations will normally be required before you bring it. Therefore, if you intend to bring a clinical negligence claim it is strongly advisable to seek legal advice within two years of treatment, even if you are still in the process of making a complaint.

If you have a complaint about NHS treatment and have been caused additional physical or psychological harm as a result, please contact our clinical negligence department, who may be able to assist in investigating a potential claim. For more information, contact us on 0117 904 6000.