Ombudsman to investigate low levels of health complaints

Study to look at why Irish people tend to complain less than other nationalities

Ombudsman Peter Tyndall has announced an investigation into how complaints are handled by public hospitals and has asked the public for their assistance. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Ombudsman Peter Tyndall has announced an investigation into how complaints are handled by public hospitals and has asked the public for their assistance. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Fri, Jun 13, 2014, 12:49

The Ombudsman is seeking far-reaching new powers to investigate health service complaints involving matters of clinical judgement.

Ombudsman Peter Tyndall says he has opened discussions with Government about changing the law so that his office could investigate such complaints for the first time.

The Health Service Executive is legally prohibited from investigating matters relating solely to the exercise of clinical judgement, but he says it is “not unusual” for his counterparts in other countries to have this power.

Mr Tyndall has announced an investigation into how complaints are handled by public hospitals and has asked the public for their assistance.

He says the investigation is motivated by the unusually low number of health complaints received by his office compared to ombudsman’s offices in other countries. “Is it because of the Irish health services is so much better than elsewhere? I suspect not,” he said.

In Ireland, 130 health complaints were made last year to his office, compared to 682 the equivalent office in Wales, which has a smaller population. Mr Tyndall was previously ombudsman in Wales before taking up his present post last December.

Possible reasons are the “disparate” nature of the health system and a desire by patients not to offend their medical team, he suggests.

Mr Tyndall says about 900 HSE staff are involved in handling complaints, compared to the 20-40 that international best practice would predict. This is because the handling of complaints in the HSE is largely a part-time activity, rather than being assigned to a full-time core of staff.

In the UK, a failure to handle complaints properly was one of the reasons why patients were treated badly for so long in Mid-Staffordshire, he points out.

The investigation will include site visits to a sample of hospitals, including psychiatric units, interviews with staff, focus groups with patients and an examination of complaint files with the HSE and Mr Tyndall’s office. It is being conducted “in conjunction with the HSE,” according to the Ombudsman, who says he has spoken to HSE director general Tony O’Brien about the matter. He plans to publish a report early next year.

He says his office has access to external medical expertise outside Ireland for people seeking help with health complaints. In the case of serious complaints, people should has automatic access to external assistance, he says.

On medical cards, Mr Tyndall says 37 people who had appealed the removal of their discretionary card to his office still have their cards after being included in the HSE’s decision to suspend the review process.

The ombudsman has asked members of the public to let his office know of their experiences, positive and negative, when making a complaint about a public hospital. He also wants to hear from people who didn’t make a formal complaint despite being unhappy with the service they received.

“International experience has shown the value of efficient and effective complaint handling services in the delivery of safe and high quality patient services.”

Members of the public are invited to contact the ombudsman’s office at ombudsman.gov.ie, email hsecomplaints@ombudsman.gov.ie, phone 1890 223030 or by freepost at the office, 18 Lower Leeson Street, Freepost F5069, Dublin 2.