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Complaints Handling Procedure – NHS Scotland

Post date: 10/04/2017 | Time to read article: 5 mins

The information within this article was correct at the time of publishing. Last updated 14/11/2018


Medical Protection understands that handling complaints can be complex and stressful. It requires time and commitment when individuals may be feeling vulnerable. Investing time and getting it right can help resolve issues quickly and avoid escalation. If you ever need assistance with a complaint, contact Medical Protection for advice.

The NHS Scotland Complaints Handling Procedure (CHP) came into effect on 1 April 2017 and all service providers, including GP practices, must adopt the new CHP.

The Complaints Handling Procedure

Click here to view our infographic detailing how the CHP works

Some important points in relation to the CHP:

  • When the current CHP was introduced in April 2017, it made a number of procedural changes but did not change the definition of a complaint.
  • Both Stages 1 and 2 of the new procedure take place at a local level – being managed by appropriate representatives of the practice, hospital or health board.
  • The new two-stage procedure aims to encourage using Stage 1 (early resolution) to resolve issues “on-the-spot” or within 5 working days.
  • Stage 2 (investigation) is reserved for complaints that are not resolved at the frontline, or that are complex, serious or high risk (to be acknowledged in 3 working days and completed in 20 working days).
  • The CHP re-emphasises the mandatory reporting requirements on all NHS Boards and practices.
  • Patients still have the right to an independent external review through the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) for unresolved issues.
  • Unless there are exceptional circumstances, complaints should be made within 6 months of the event complained about, or finding out that there was reason to complain, but no longer than 12 months after the event itself.

Important points within the CHP

  • Each NHS Body or service provider (including GP practices) should already have a Feedback and Complaints Officer who is responsible for handling feedback, comments, concerns and complaints. This person should be senior and able to deal with most issues without referring to the Feedback and Complaints Manager (each NHS Body must appoint one, usually the board’s CEO or equivalent).
  • Anyone affected by the NHS can complain or nominate someone to complain for them. You should ensure you have patient consent in any complaint from a third party.
  • If the patient cannot give consent or they have died, have a look at our factsheet on Confidentiality, or contact Medical Protection for tailored advice.
  • Your complaints procedure must be prominently displayed and should include suggested sources of advice/support such as the Patient Advice and Support Service (PASS).
  • The NHS complaints process does not provide financial compensation – complainants should be directed to PASS, AvMA or the Law Society of Scotland if they suggest an intention to claim for compensation.
  • If you are made aware that a patient intends to take legal action, such as pursue a claim for compensation through court, contact Medical Protection immediately for advice.

First steps when someone complains

The whole team should be trained and feel empowered to attempt to resolve issues where they can. Any issue should be assessed to determine if it is: feedback, a comment, a concern or a complaint – definitions are provided in the CHP on pages 2-5 and a matrix to help decide is available at Appendix 3.

All complaints should be assessed to consider if they are suitable for Stage 1 (early resolution), which should be concluded within 5 working days. You are not obliged to communicate a response in writing (this could be verbal) but the complaint must be recorded.

For complaints that are not resolved at the frontline or that are complex, serious or high risk, Stage 2 (investigation) should be used (acknowledgement sent in 3 working days and process completed in 20 working days).

Consider how to manage the complaint with the complainant. What do they want to achieve? Does there need to be communication with other healthcare organisations? Will a meeting be helpful? Do we need to undertake a Significant Event Analysis process (or equivalent)?

Recording complaints

All complaints must be recorded and should specify if they were managed using Stage 1 or Stage 2. This includes complaints dealt with verbally.

The information that should be recorded is set out in the CHP at page 28. If you would like a template to use in recording complaints, contact Medical Protection.

Each service provider (including every GP practice) must provide a quarterly report to the board and produce a yearly report setting out your performance in handling complaints.

Some tips on good complaint handling

The wording of a response is hugely important. Whether verbally or in writing, the way a response is provided is often the deciding factor on whether a complaint proceeds. Sometimes just acknowledging a person’s feelings or frustration, anger or distress, regardless of whether the complaint is justified or not, can be enough to defuse the situation.

Try to understand what the complainant wants from the outset. Consider if a meeting may be useful or use of mediation or conciliation.

There is certain mandatory information that should be included in a complaint response, including signposting sources of support, such as PASS, and outlining the complainant’s right to approach the SPSO.

Medical Protection can advise on the content of your draft response, contact us for tailored advice.

What happens if they are still unhappy?

Complainants retain the right to request an independent external review through the SPSO for unresolved issues. This right should be stated in the complaints procedure and any response should notify the complainant of this right.

If you are involved in a complaint that is referred to the SPSO, contact Medical Protection right away for advice.

Further information

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