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Complaints in public services: Examining the types of complaints arising within the NHS

Attending the Nesta round table event about innovation in complaints, as a new intern at Nesta, was an enriching experience.

Complaints to public services are not something I have come across all that often, (other than perhaps the crusade of the student against unruly landlord at university). However, one capacity in which I have come into contact with complaints is in my part time job working for the NHS.

In my experience working for a nurse bank as a health care assistant on a mental health ward, there are roughly three types of complaints that I've identified:

  1. Patient to (on ward) Staff complaints - These are informal complaints made by service users, generally related to some dissatisfaction that has arisen from life on the ward.  It is this form of complaint that I have dealt with directly. These types of complaints tended to be about the rules surrounding patients cigarette breaks on the ward not being frequent enough, or patients not knowing when the designated times for tea and biscuits were.  The latter resulted in a signs being located around the ward with the times that tea and coffee would be served in the dining rooms, so that patients were clear on these times.     
  2. Patient to (in office) Staff - This type of complaint is perhaps slightly more formal than complaints that happen on the ward. These complaints are generally complaints that arise again from day-to-day activity on the ward, but require a higher level of expertise to solve. These were usually surrounding medication and they would be resolved by patients conversing with their doctor until they felt happier with a new course of action.      
  3. Official Complaints - The third type of complaint are official complaints made to the ward manager or some higher authority by service users or their families about some element of dissatisfaction they are experiencing. 

Of the plethora of interesting points made at the round table, one that stuck with me the most was the point that people are often reluctant to make a complaint because they are not sure whether it is appropriate to manifest their dissatisfaction as a complaint.

Certainly on the ward the largest proportion of complaints I have dealt with are very much type one complaints.

Many of these informal complaints are expressions of dissatisfaction often underpinned by something causing distress. Spending time with the person and talking through what is causing them distress means that often their dissatisfaction (and the complaint) dissipates.

Whilst not all the complaints made where resolved, none of the complaints made were unnecessary because they demonstrated an underlying unhappiness which needed to be dealt with so that the person's wellbeing and happiness improved. 


Katherine Stevenson

Katherine Stevenson

Katherine Stevenson

Research Assistant

Katherine is a research assistant for the Policy and Research Team at Nesta.

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