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Viewpoint – can you turn a negative into a positive?

Every voice matters: how complaints can help improve health and care services

Healthwatch England Chair, Jane Mordue

Jane Mordue

When care goes wrong, it’s really important to put things right as soon as possible. It is also a great opportunity to learn from what has happened and to do things differently. However for this to happen, we all need to support people to speak up.

In 2014 Healthwatch England published Suffering in silence, which shared what people had told local Healthwatch about their experience of complaining. It highlighted the invaluable opportunity that complaints provide for services to learn from people’s experiences, and how important it is that this information is used effectively.

Knowing how to complain

But we found that many people simply don’t know how to make a complaint. Varying quality of information about how to share your experience can be off-putting, particularly for people who are already having a stressful time – whether recovering from care, looking after a loved one, or dealing with a bereavement.

Our poll found that two thirds of people who had experienced or witnessed poor care in the previous two years had not complained about it. Of those who did complain, three in five did not feel their complaint was taken seriously enough. With 70 different organisations involved in complaints-handling, people were faced with a complex and frustrating system which many found hard to navigate.

Feeding back healthwatch

We worked with the Local Government Ombudsman and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to produce ‘My Expectations’ which set out what people expect to happen when they complain or raise concerns about poor care. It explained that people should feel that they can speak up; that making a complaint is simple; that they have been listened to and understood; and that their complaint has made a difference. As a result of our collective work, NHS organisations are now expected to learn from feedback, including complaints.

What can services do?

Each time somebody decides not to come forward, or their complaint isn’t dealt with correctly, we miss out on an opportunity to make care better. To ensure that every voice and experience is valued, we need services to help people to speak up. There are a number of things that you can do to support this, including:

  • make sure that the information on your website about how to complain is clear and easy to understand
  • ensure that all colleagues understand your complaints process and can answer questions about it
  • share how you have changed your service based on people’s feedback.

For complaints systems to work properly, it’s vital that all organisations involved in handling feedback understand each other’s roles and can signpost people effectively.

As part of our role as members of the Regulation of Dental Services Programme Board, we worked with the General Dental Council (see viewpoint from the GDC) and other stakeholders to develop a shared statement on complaints handling. The statement can be used by providers, commissioners, regulators and local Healthwatch to ensure that people get consistent information about where to share their concerns, no matter which part of the system they approach first.

Working with your local Healthwatch

Local Healthwatch can help you develop a better understanding of people’s views. They work in every area of England to speak to people about their experiences, and to share them with those designing and running services. Last year we launched a complaints toolkit to help local Healthwatch to scrutinise local complaints-handling and help deliver a better experience for people. We’re now working to explore further how we can ensure that people have the opportunity to speak up about social care.

Find your local Healthwatch 


Local Healthwatch in action

Healthwatch Torbay conducted an investigation into a home care provider after receiving complaints from the public. They found that people didn’t feel listened to, their requests were often ignored, that care workers were inexperienced, and that people didn’t know who would visit them or at what time. Healthwatch Torbay raised its concerns with the Care Quality Commission which, following an inspection, rated the provider as inadequate and placed it into Special Measures. The provider has since agreed to make improvements, demonstrating the power and importance of people’s views being listened to.

Feeding back about the regulators 

When the Authority carries out its performance reviews, we value feedback about your interactions with the regulators we oversee. These can feed into our performance reviews, so if you do have any experience of regulators, please share it with us.