Half of complaints about hospitals concern poor communication and attitude

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 22 September 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h5036
  1. Zosia Kmietowicz
  1. 1The BMJ

The main complaints about hospitals in England last year that were escalated to the health service ombudsman concerned poor clinical care and treatment, poor communication, and errors in diagnosis.

In 2014-15 the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman received 8853 inquiries about acute trusts, up from 8178 in 2013-14, says a new report.1 The ombudsman makes final decisions on complaints that have not been resolved locally by the NHS in England.

Last year it completed 1652 investigations about acute trusts, up from 852 in 2013-14, largely because of a drive to deal with more complaints. Of last year’s investigations about acute trusts, 44% were upheld.

Poor communication was cited as a reason in 35% of the complaints about hospital care, although this is lower than the 42% in 2013-14. Of the complaints involving communication, 71% referred to problems in communication between the hospital and patients or their family, and the remaining complaints referred to communication between staff within the same hospital or between different hospitals.

The attitude of staff was a factor in 21% of all complaints in 2014-15, similar to 2013-14. Failure to diagnose was cited in 31% of complaints, a slight decrease from 35% in 2013-14. Complaints about clinical care and treatment featured in 38% of all complaints investigated in 2014-15, similar to 2013-14.

To provide data on how likely a trust was to receive a complaint about its service the report compared the number of complaints the ombudsman service investigated to the size of each trust, measuring the number of “clinical incidents” including the outpatient appointments, elective surgery, and emergency admissions the trust had carried out. This showed a wide range of complaint activity, from no accepted complaints at three hospitals to 17 inquiries per 100 000 clinical episodes at one hospital.

These figures should not be used to rank trusts, said the report, because many factors influence the number of complaints hospitals receive, including encouraging feedback from patients. In addition, a trust with few complaints seen by the ombudsman may be better at resolving its complaints locally than one that has a much higher number sent to the ombudsman.

Julie Mellor, the ombudsman, said, “We know that there are many factors that influence the number of complaints hospitals receive, such as organisational size, demographics, and whether they actively encourage feedback from patients.

“I strongly believe that NHS leaders should welcome feedback from patients and recognise the opportunities that good complaint handling offers to improve the services they provide. We are publishing this data to help hospital trusts identify problems and take action to ensure trust in the healthcare system remains high.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h5036


View Abstract

Sign in

Log in through your institution

Free trial

Register for a free trial to to receive unlimited access to all content on for 14 days.
Sign up for a free trial