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How to complain - getting started

Find out if you can use the NHS complaints process and what you can expect to achieve from it. 

Who can complain to the NHS?

If you have been affected by the actions or decisions of an organisation which provides or commissions a service paid for by the NHS, you can make a complaint.

Your complaint can help to put things right quickly, and the NHS can learn from your experience. They might respond with an explanation, an apology, and information about how they have used your experience to improve services or care.

If you’re complaining on someone else’s behalf, it’s useful to get their permission in writing. We have a consent form you can use. To get a copy, contact 0300 303 1600 or email helpline@voiceability.org

What can I complain about?

Your complaint could be about

  • NHS hospitals
  • private hospitals where the NHS funds treatment
  • GP surgeries
  • dental surgeries
  • pharmacies
  • opticians
  • NHS funded care homes
  • ambulances
  • NHS community staff
  • other NHS staff or clinicians

Disciplinary action against an NHS staff member

The NHS complaints procedure can’t be used to take disciplinary action against a member of staff. This could still happen as a result of an investigation into your complaint, but you won’t be told whether this has happened.

Financial compensation for clinical negligence

It’s best to contact a solicitor for advice about a potential litigation. There are strict time limits around taking your case to court, so you should do this as soon as possible.

There is no legal aid for this, but some solicitors will take on the case on a no win, no fee’ basis. Your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau may be able to help you with independent legal advice: citizensadvice.org.uk

AvMA (Action Against Medical Accidents) provide free information and advice if you are considering taking legal action. They can help by providing contact details of solicitors in your area who may be able to help with your case. Phone them for advice on 0345 123 2352 or visit avma.org.uk.

You can also find details of local specialist solicitors by contacting the Law Society on 0207 424 1222 or by visiting lawsociety.org.uk.

Complaining about private healthcare

You can only use the NHS complaints process if your complaint is about healthcare that was paid for by the NHS.

To complain about treatment that you have received from a private dental service, you can contact the Dental Complaints Service on 08456 120 540 (Monday to Friday 9am-5pm), or fill out the complaint form on their website.

If you’ve paid for private treatment such as privately funded treatment at a care home or nursing home, or used medical insurance, the private healthcare service will have its own complaints procedure that you can follow.

If the NHS paid for your operation in a private hospital, you can still complain to the NHS, because they funded your care.

Identifying your concerns

It’s important to list all your concerns right at the beginning, as simply and clearly as you can. Writing a timeline of events will help you to focus and not leave anything out. We have a log sheet template you can use. To get a copy, contact 0300 303 1600 or email helpline@voiceability.org

After you’ve made your complaint, if you think of any other issues you’re concerned about, you’ll need to make a separate complaint.

If you want to complain about medical treatment which you did or didn’t receive, you might find it helpful to get a copy of your medical records first - see this page for guidance on how to access them.

Think about what you want to achieve, and try to be specific and realistic. 

For example, you might expect:

  • an acknowledgement of mistakes that have been made
  • an apology from the service
  • a change of doctor or care provider
  • evidence that changes have been made so that others don’t experience the same issues in future

Complaining on behalf of people who are unable to give permission

People who don’t have capacity to give permission

If the person does not have capacity to give permission because of an illness, impairment or disability, you can complain on their behalf without their permission. The NHS Trust will confirm the patient’s lack of capacity before accepting the complaint. If they do not accept the complaint, they must inform you in writing, and explain their decision.

People who have died

You can complain on behalf of people who have died without having given you permission to complain. If you are next-of-kin to the person who has died, or if someone who is next-of-kin has given consent for you to complain, trusts will usually accept your complaint.

However, the NHS may decide not to accept you as a suitable representative. If they do not accept the complaint, they must inform you in writing, and explain their decision.

People under 18

You can complain on behalf of a child (under 18) if they are unable to make the complaint themselves. If the NHS organisation decides that the child must make their own complaint, they must inform you in writing, and explain their decision.

Some examples are:

  • poor treatment or care
  • attitude of staff
  • poor communication
  • waiting times
  • lack of information
  • failure to diagnose a condition