How to make a complaint about healthcare

As a parent of a child with a primary immunodeficiency, you’re no doubt in frequent contact with NHS hospitals and clinics, and the people who work in them. Hopefully the care you’re experiencing is good and you feel you’re getting access to everything you need.

But what if you feel that things aren’t going right and you need to let someone know about it?

Making a complaint

Since April 2009, the NHS has run a two-stage complaints procedure. These are the stages:

1. Local resolution

This stage involves trying to get the complaint sorted out locally. First, ask your hospital or trust for a copy of its complaints procedure. This document will explain how to proceed.

Generally the next step is to contact the staff member concerned  for example, doctor, nurse, receptionist or therapist  or the complaints manager within their organisation. You can do this in writing or by speaking to them.

The NHS expects that any staff member you approach with a concern or complaint will do their best to help you.

This may help you to feel less daunted by the prospect of complaining. However, what if you’re not satisfied with the response you receive and want to take it further?

2. The Health Ombudsman

If you’re still unhappy, then your next step is to contact the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, or the Health Ombudsman. On the Ombudsman’s website there is an online form and details about what they can and cannot help you with. You can also call their helpline, telephone 0345 015 4033. The website has downloadable leaflets, including Bringing a complaint to the Health Service Ombudsman.

People often find that this route can be rather slow, so it may be best to seek support for your complaint through the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) and the Independent Complaints Advocacy Service (ICAS) – see below.

Hopefully your complaint will be sorted out in either of these two stages. If not, you may need to take it to a third stage: judicial review.

Judicial review

If you’re not satisfied with the way the NHS has dealt with your complaint and you think you’ve been directly affected by an unlawful act or decision of an NHS body (e.g. if a relative has been harmed and/or you’d like to apply for compensation) you can make a claim for judicial review.

For further information on judicial reviews, see the Public Law Project information leaflet A brief guide to judicial review procedure.

Help with making a complaint

Making a complaint can be daunting, but help is available from several
organisations, including:

  • Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS)
  • Independent Complaints Advocacy Service (ICAS)
  • Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB)
  • NHS Direct.

Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS)

PALS is an independent body which handles patient and family concerns, with direct access to the chief executive of the NHS trust concerned and the power to negotiate immediate solutions. In other words, PALS is better positioned to sort things where you may have failed to do so. PALS staff are employed by the NHS. PALS is best for dealing with informal concerns and there should be an office in every hospital.

PALS is there to:

  • provide you with information about the NHS and to help you with any other health-related enquiry
  • help resolve concerns or problems when you are using the NHS
  • provide information about the NHS complaints procedure and explain how to get independent help
  • improve the NHS by listening to your concerns, suggestions and experiences.

Independent Complaints Advocacy Service (ICAS)

This is a national service that supports people who wish to make a complaint about their NHS care or treatment. ICAS staff are independent and not employed by the NHS. As well as helping with informal concerns, ICAS will also support you to deal with more formal complaints.

Visit the ICAS website to find contact details of your local ICAS office. You can also ask for these from your hospital manager or from PALS.

PALS and ICAS work closely together to try to resolve a complaint quickly and to the satisfaction of the patient. It is always your choice which service you prefer to use. Both PALS and ICAS will refer you on to each other if it is more appropriate that you use the other service and if the patient consents to this course of action.

Citizens Advice Bureau

Your local Citizens Advice Bureau can be a great source of advice and support if you want to complain about the NHS, social services or local authorities. You can find your local Citizens Advice Bureau on its website

NHS Direct

NHS Direct can advise on NHS complaints. Call 0845 4647.


What are my rights?

If you’re not happy with the care or treatment you’ve received or you’ve been refused treatment for a condition, you have the right to complain, have your complaint investigated, and be given a full and prompt reply.

The NHS Constitution explains your rights when it comes to making a complaint.

You have the right to:

  • have your complaint dealt with efficiently, and properly investigated
  • know the outcome of any investigation into your complaint
  • take your complaint to the independent Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman if you’re not satisfied with the way the NHS has dealt with your complaint
  • make a claim for judicial review if you think you’ve been directly affected by an unlawful act or decision of an NHS body
  • receive compensation if you’ve been harmed.

What can I complain about?

You can complain about any aspect of your NHS experience that you’re not happy with. For example, maybe you’re not happy with the ward or waiting room environment or you’ve had transport or parking problems. Perhaps you feel that a staff member hasn’t treated you with respect or that the treatment options haven’t been properly explained to you.

Is there a time limit for making a complaint?

It is expected that you complain within 12 months of the event or events concerned or within 12 months of becoming aware that you have something to complain about. However, this time limit can be waived if there are good reasons why you couldn’t complain earlier; for example, if you were grieving or experiencing trauma.

What if I think there’s been professional misconduct?

It may be that you think an NHS practitioner or social services employee has been guilty of professional misconduct. Examples of professional misconduct include:

  • practitioners who have a sexual relationship with a patient
  • practitioners who claim that they’re competent to practise but are not
  • practitioners who falsely claim that they’re qualified to practise
  • breaching confidentiality
  • manipulating a patient’s medical records.

If you think an NHS practitioner or social services employee has been guilty of professional misconduct, you can complain to their professional or regulatory body; for example, the GMC (for doctors). The purpose of these bodies is to protect and promote the safety of the public by setting down standards of behaviour, education and ethics, which must be met by members.

For further information about regulatory bodies, including lists of specific regulators, visit the NHS Choices section on how to make a complaint.

You can also contact your local PALS or ICAS office for advice on how to make a complaint.