FOR generations grateful patients have sung the praises of the NHS.
It is the most cherished of British institutions, with which Governments of any stripe meddle at their peril. But it is very far from perfect.
That more than 800 patients in Scotland are making an official complaint about some aspect of their treatment, however, is a startling and shocking level of dissatisfaction.
With almost 10,000 complaints across both community and hospital services in the year 2010-11, something is going awry: just over one-third of complaints were about treatment and one-third were about staff.
Over the UK as a whole, complaints to the General Medical Council, the regulatory body for doctors reached a record level of 8781 last year: a 23% increase on the previous year, confirming the trend over the past five years. This is partly the result of a generally greater willingness to complain about poor service in an age which has cast off the deference of previous generations. As Dr Mark Porter, of the British Medical Association, says, it is good that patients feel more empowered to raise their complaints. While that is true, we need to know much more about the nature of the complaints and how they were dealt with before we can be sure that the increase is not the result of poor practice or unprofessional behaviour by doctors, nurses and other NHS staff.
In many ways the NHS is a victim of its own success; people are living longer due to more effective treatments for all sorts of illnesses and injuries but an ageing population means increasing pressure on the service. Even when, as in Scotland, budgets are increased, the continued rise in demand amounts to a cut in real terms, placing extra strain on staff at all levels. That may be a factor in the sharp rise in complaints in relation to communication and lack of respect. However, people do not complain to an outside body such as the GMC or The Patients' Association unless they feel very strongly. As Katherine Murphy, the association's chief executive says, patients have the right to be well informed, treated with dignity and involved in shared decisions about their treatment.
It would appear that some staff – and in Scotland complaints about nurses outnumber those about doctors – are failing to live up to the standard required.
Less deference should result in much better communication between staff and patients, providing greater understanding on both sides. No doubt that happens every day in surgeries and hospitals throughout the country. But the number of complaints, especially about lack of respect, is far too high for comfort.
The GMC investigated one in 64 British doctors last year. It is time for all professional bodies and NHS managers to examine exactly why there are so many complaints and take steps to improve the relationship between staff and patients.
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