Three out of four investigations by hospitals into complaints that patients suffered avoidable injury or death fail to identify serious failings in care, leaving distraught families in the dark, the NHS ombudsman has warned.
Inquiries by hospital staff are so often inadequate that many complainants seeking to understand what went wrong are met with “a wall of silence from the NHS”, according to Dame Julie Mellor.
Mellor, the parliamentary and health service ombudsman, has demanded an urgent overhaul of how hospitals examine serious complaints made against them, in which mistakes allegedly led to patients being harmed or even killed.
Her review of the quality of internal hospital investigations uncovered a series of major weaknesses. In 73% of cases in which she found evidence of clear failings, the NHS hospitals trust concerned had concluded that no failings occurred.
“Parents and families are being met with a wall of silence from the NHS when they seek answers as to why their loved one died or was harmed,” said Mellor.
“Our review found that NHS investigations into complaints about avoidable death and harm are simply not good enough. They are not consistent, reliable or transparent, which means that too many people are being forced to bring their complaint to us to get it resolved.”
In just over half (52%) of the cases she examined, the investigation had been led by a doctor who was not independent of the events complained about.
For example, when a baby girl was left with brain damage after a blood transfusion went wrong, the hospital appointed a close colleague of the paediatrician at the centre of the complaint to investigate. The girl’s family had to wait three years before learning what mistakes had been made.
Hospitals also failed to categorise 20 out of 28 cases of avoidable harm examined as serious incidents, which meant they were not properly investigated.
Mellor said hospitals’ inquiries into serious injuries or deaths too often fail to gather enough evidence, are inconsistent in how they look for proof of errors, and do not look closely enough at material to see what went wrong and why.
Almost a fifth (19%) of inquiries did not gather important evidence such as the patient’s medical records, statements and interviews, Mellor found.
In investigations that found there had been failings, more than a third (36%) failed to get to the bottom of why they had occurred, even though 91% of complaints managers said they were confident they could find out what happened.
Hospital bosses admitted that too many investigations are substandard.
“We know we don’t always get this right and it’s crucial that we learn and improve every time,” said Rob Webster, the NHS Confederation chief executive.
“The Care Quality Commission, ombudsman and others are highlighting major inconsistencies and shortcomings in the handling of complaints and those problems cannot be allowed to continue. So we urgently need to learn from what is working and fix what doesn’t, to ensure patients have complete confidence in the National Health Service.”
Anna Bradley, the chair of Healthwatch England, a patient group, said: “Hundreds of thousands of incidents of poor care go unreported every year across the NHS precisely because people fear they either won’t be taken seriously or that nothing will change as a result.”
Peter Walsh, the chief executive of the patient safety charity Action Against Medical Accidents, said the new independent patient safety investigation service, set up by Jeremy Hunt to promote airline-level safety in the NHS, should improve investigations.
“The ombudsman’s findings are doubly worrying, as they were only reviewing cases where there had already been a complaint under the NHS complaints procedure. If this is how the NHS investigates when there is a formal complaint, one has to wonder how it investigates when it is left entirely to its own devices,” said Walsh.
“Unfortunately, in our experience it is not uncommon for NHS bodies to carry out investigations without even informing the patient or family affected by an incident.”
Source: The Guardian