Law guide: Complaints and disputes

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You have the right to make a complaint about any aspect of NHS treatment. You can do this by using the NHS complaints procedure. Anyone who is receiving, has received or has been refused NHS treatment or services can complain. If you're unable to complain yourself, someone else, like a relative or close friend, can complain for you with your consent.

NHS complaint procedures

You must first complain to the relevant service provider, i.e. your GP, dentist, hospital or pharmacist.

You can raise your concerns immediately by speaking to the relevant member of staff. It may be useful to talk to the local Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) in England and Wales, the Patient Advice and Support Service (PASS) in Scotland or the Patient and Client Council (PCC) in Northern Ireland.

PALS, PASS and PCC aren't part of the complaints procedure itself, but they may be able to investigate and resolve your concerns informally. If they're unsuccessful they'll tell you more about the NHS complaints procedure.

Your complaint will then be referred to the complaints manager of the organisation concerned, who will deal with the complaint. The complaints manager will bring in an independent mediator to help resolve the problem.

In England and Wales, you should raise your complaint within 12 months of the issue happening, or of the date you first became aware of it.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the complaints procedure for the NHS is similar. You should start by complaining to the hospital or other health provider within 6 months of the issue happening, or of the date you first became aware of it.

See NHS England, NHS 111 Wales, NHS inform (Scotland) or nidirect (Northern Ireland) for more information.

The Ombudsman

If you're still unhappy with the decision, you can refer your complaint to the following Ombudsman, who is independent of the NHS and the government:

The Ombudsman will investigate the complaint and write a report, giving the results of the investigation. This report is sent to both you and the relevant government department or health authority.

If the Ombudsman agrees that the complaint is justified and that you've suffered injustice or hardship, the Ombudsman will state in the report what should be done about it.

The Ombudsman can ask for:

  • An apology
  • Better instructions for staff
  • Better facilities for patients
  • Better administrative procedures
  • Financial compensation or repayment of money due, e.g. tax or benefits

You can't appeal against the Ombudsman's decision.

The Ombudsman will only reinvestigate a complaint if new information is received that couldn't reasonably have been known about before, but it's very rare for a new investigation to be started.

In some circumstances, you may be able to have the Ombudsman's decision judicially reviewed by a court. However, there are strict criteria that you must meet and this could be very expensive.

Access to medical records

The Access to Health Records Act 1990 and the Access to Health Records (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 allow any patient to see their paper medical records unless doing so could cause them harm. The General Data Protection Regulation and the Data Protection Act 2018 extend the right of access to all information held on computers as well as manual records. You are also entitled to copies if you make this request. Everyone has the right to access personal data held about them in either computerised or manual form, regardless of when the record was made. This includes NHS medical records and private records made by doctors and other health professionals.

You can't be charged to see or receive copies of your medical records, unless your request is unfounded or excessive (this will rarely be the case).

If you don't understand any part of the record, you can write to the relevant health professional asking them to explain it, and you will not be charged for the explanation they provide.

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