The NHS and social care complaints procedure: local resolution

Wherever possible, it's best to try and resolve complaints at the local level. Here's what you need to know.

  • The NHS and social care complaints procedure applies to all NHS health providers in England, including dental practices.
  • The complaints procedure is in two stages – local resolution and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.
  • Local resolution is the quickest and most efficient way to resolve a complaint.

How are complaints made?

  • Complaints can be made to either the organisation providing care (such as the dental practice) or direct to a primary care provider or the commissioning group.
  • Once a complainant has chosen who to complain to, they cannot later choose an alternative route.

Time frames

  • A complaint should be made within 12 months from the date on which the matter occurred, or from when the complainant first knew about it, unless the complainant has a good reason for not making a complaint within that limit.
  • We advise members to consider complaints made outside the time limit if it is possible to investigate them.
  • All complaints, other than oral complaints resolved within 24 hours, must be acknowledged within three working days of receipt and a copy of the practice complaints policy must be provided to the complainant.

Who can complain?

  • Current or former patients aged 16 and over should normally complain themselves. However, they may nominate a representative, for example a relative or solicitor.
  • Never assume that someone complaining on behalf of a patient has the authority to do so. Make sure the patient has consented for clinical and other confidential information to be disclosed to the third party.
  • Children under 16 who are competent to do so may also make their own complaint.
  • If the complaint is on behalf of an adult or child who lacks capacity, the practice must be satisfied that that complainant is acting in the patient's best interests.

What should my practice do in the event of a complaint?

  • Apologise where appropriate. A genuine and sincere apology is not an admission of liability, and can often defuse a complaint.
  • The complaints manager must make a written record of the date it was received and provide the complainant with a written record of the complaint, even if it was made verbally or electronically.
  • All complaints records should be kept separately from the patient's clinical records.
  • The practice should invite the complainant to discuss the complaint and to agree an approach. It can be helpful to meet to discuss the concerns raised. Offer the presence of a conciliator, if you think the situation would benefit from this and the patient agrees.
  • The practice needs to write to confirm the details of how the complaint will be handled – for example, by explaining how it will be investigated and suggesting timescales for the response, in line with their complaints policy.
  • Practices are required to complete a thorough investigation and keep the complainant informed about progress.

Responding to complaints

  • It's important to acknowledge the complaint as soon as possible. Most complaints can be resolved quite quickly.
  • The GDC advises dental professionals to 'respond to complaints within the time limits set out in your complaints procedure'.
  • If you need more time to investigate a complaint, you should tell the patient when you will respond. In exceptional circumstances where you're unable to resolve the complaint within the usual timescale, you should update the patient regularly (at least every 10 days) with your progress.
  • The responsible person, or someone with delegated authority to do so, must sign all complaint responses.

The DDU can help check and draft complaint responses. The response should:

  • contain an explanation of how the complaint was investigated
  • detail any conclusions reached
  • identify anything that needs remedial action
  • explain whether any action is planned or has already taken place
  • explain the complainant's right to take the matter to the Ombudsman within 12 months if they're still dissatisfied.

This guidance was correct at publication 29/01/2019. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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