Complaints about hospital care were locked in a box - and key was lost
Watchdog inspectors who visited a large hospital to find out how it was dealing with patient grievances discovered the complaints box locked and the key lost.
The revelation is made in a scathing report on how health service complaints are being dealt with, leaving patients and families in many cases without any response to emails or phone calls.
Ombudsman Peter Tyndall declined to name the hospital with a locked complaints box and no key.
He conducted the investigation, including hospital visits and patient focus groups, after becoming concerned at the low number of complaints his office received about the health service.
After he urged people to bring grievances to his office last year, the number of complaints went up to 262 in 2014 compared to around 100 in 2013. Some people spoken to said they complained at ward level. They were told by a nurse that she would "pass it on" but no contact was ever made.
He pointed out just one doctor was referred by a hospital to the Medical Council, the profession's regulatory body in 2013.
His office does not have the power to investigate the clinical care of patients, and this needs to be changed, he said.
The system is not working for a lot of people who have questions about the clinical care of patients but cannot bring them to his office, he said.
The report revealed that some people whose complaint was in process had no update on its progress.
Others who has several issues to be addressed received a one-line response.
Mr Tyndall said he was surprised by the striking finding that so many were afraid to make a complaint because of a risk of repercussions for themselves or their loved ones.
"There was also a lack of confidence that anything would change as a result of complaining," he added.
The system for dealing with complaints varied across the country and 800 people are involved nationally, the majority of whom are busy with other work.
Hospitals themselves complained they often had trouble getting internal feedback on complaints.
The report called for an independent advocacy service to be set up to help patients get answers.
Each hospital group should provide a six-monthly report to the HSE on how its complaints system is working.
The outcomes also need to be made public, he added.
HSE chief Tony O'Brien said he accepted the recommendations.
The recruitment of administrative staff was particularly hit in recent years and this impacted on the time devoted to dealing with complaints, he added.
Speaking at the launch, Robert Francis, who conducted hospital probes in the UK, said patient complaints should be treated as "gold dust".
He warned against too many reviews, consultations and pilot projects on foot of critical reports.