Getting complaints heard in the health service: still an uphill struggle

The PCC was established in April 2009

The PCC was established in April 2009

By Niall McCracken

A NEW report has criticised Northern Ireland’s leading patient advocacy group for not adequately supporting its service users, The Detail can reveal.

A workshop focusing on the complaints process was held at the Health and Social Care Board headquarters in May 2013.

A summary report of the meeting published this week outlines a number of criticisms directed towards the Patient and Client Council (PCC). The majority of service users present at the meeting said they did not know what its role was or in some cases that it even existed.

The Patient and Client Council was set up in 2009 to give information and advice to the public about health and social care services.

However, the summary report outlines that those present at the meeting who had used the PCC said they did not feel that they were “always adequately supported” and that "its complaints support staff did not fully engage with them”.

The HSCB report states that further discussions should take place between the Department of Health and interested parties to review the PCC’s “role and responsibilities”.

In a statement to The Detail a spokesperson for the PCC said: “Service providers need to make clear to people at the outset what they can expect in the [complaints] process, including the independent support and advice they can receive from the Patient and Client Council.”

The PCC says that since it was established it has advised and supported over 3,600 people with complaints about their experiences in health and social care and that efforts are under way to “make it easier for people to access the services”.

The latest summary report from HSCB concludes that accessibility and communication are major areas of concern in relation to all health and social care complaints. A number of other key issues are highlighted including:

  • The majority of service users in attendance, did not know how to make a formal complaint to the health service;
  • Service users highlighted that there was a feeling of “shutters coming down” from the Health and Social Care Organisation being complained against;
  • Attendees highlighted that whilst there was an expectation that somebody would listen to their concerns, this did not occur, therefore they felt that they were not taken seriously and were subsequently “brushed off” health and social care complaints staff.

A DHSSPS spokesperson confirmed that the summary report has been submitted to the Department formally and will be considered by the HSC Complaints Liaison Group when it meets next month.

This group is led by the Department and will decide whether to accept the recommendations, agree any changes or other actions relating to the HSC Complaints Procedure and establish a timescale to implement those changes.


Revised complaints arrangements for health and social care organisations were introduced in April 2009. The HSCB undertook an evaluation of its Complaints Procedure in 2011, to establish what was working and where the procedure could be further strengthened.

The evaluation showed that while significant efforts had been made on the part of HSC organisations to implement the new arrangements, there was further work required to improve the accessibility and effectiveness of the procedures.

As part of a programme to implement the recommendations from the evaluation of the Complaints Procedure, the HSCB held a public workshop on May 14 2013, at board Headquarters. Its purpose was to seek the views and opinions of those who have made a complaint across the health and social care system since 1 April 2009, or those who wanted to complain, but did not.

HSCB confirmed that 38 members of the public registered their interest, 27 of which attended on the evening, while 23 members of staff from a range of HSC organisations attended also.

Feedback from the meeting was put together in a summary report published earlier this week by HSCB. During the meeting there was a general consensus that contact between the complainant and the complaint officers was poor and that the onus was on the complainant to seek further information, updates, or explanations as to why delays occurred.

In addition, service users expressed disappointment in the administrative process of the complaints procedure as a variety of errors in individual cases occurred including

  • Complainants not having the opportunity to review minutes of meetings, suggest amendments or include further action required;
  • The HSC Organisation produced a report, thus closing the complaint without any further discussion from the complainant and their correspondence was sent to the wrong address.

The report concluded that greater transparency is required within the HSC Complaints Procedure, particularly within Trusts.


The summary report outlines that the majority of attendees indicated that there is a lack of information available in regards to the role and responsibilities of other bodies such as Regulatory and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA), the Northern Ombudsman and in particular the Patient Client Council (PCC).

In relation to the PCC the majority of service users either did not know that existed exists or that is has an advocacy role in supporting complainants through the complaints process.

The summary report outlines that it was “disappointing to note” that those individuals who had used the PCC’s services felt that they were not fully supported throughout the process.

Its states that whilst the PCC was established in 2009, service users did not know that their role included providing advice and support in regards to the complaints process, for example, drafting letters for the complainant, arranging meetings, making telephone calls, and/or referral to other advocacy services.

In a statement to the Detail a spokesperson for the PCC said: “The demand for the service provided by the Patient and Client Council is growing year on year, with almost 1200 people contacting its staff last year, compared to some 600 in its first year. The Council is responding positively to this increase, and making it easier for people to contact it and access its services.”

The summary report proposes that the Health and Social Care Board in conjunction with the Department of Health Social Services and Public Safety and various Health and Social Care Organisations, develop a communication campaign, to highlight to service users and the general public how to make a complaint and in particular their right to complain.

In a statement to The Detail HSCB said this recommendation is currently “under consideration”.

Meanwhile a spokesperson for the PCC said People can contact the organisation through a single telephone number 0800 917 0222.

© The Detail 2013