Watchdog urges more patients to report poor care in public hospitals
Poor care in public hospitals will go unchecked unless patients make more formal complaints, Ombudsman Peter Tyndall has warned.
He said he is so concerned about the low volume of complaints about the health service to his office that he is embarking on his own investigation to find out how patient grievances are handled in the nation's hospitals.
He compared the 130 complaints about the health service he received last year with the 682 lodged with the Ombudsman in Wales, which has a smaller population.
"I can't believe that healthcare in Ireland is so superior as to account for that," he said.
Members of the public are entitled to appeal to his office if they are still unhappy after going through the Health Service Executive's statutory complaints system.
He has already found that around 900 staff in the health service deal with complaints, along with their day job. But best practice should have no more than 20 to 40 involved.
Complaints are healthy for all institutions because they identify where mistakes are being made and provide a chance to correct him to protect other patients, he pointed out.
"I want to find out how we can encourage more people to complain. We want to see if complaints are being dealt with properly."
Research has indicated people may be reluctant to voice their grievance if they are being treated in hospital and fear a backlash from staff.
He instanced a case of bad practice involving a woman who complained to his office after she had been told she had a fatal genetic condition.
"When she complained the proper procedure was not followed, she was contacted by a consultant instead. This upset her even more. It later turned out when she had a second opinion that she did not have the disease at all."
He said the investigation will involve his staff carrying out site visits and inspections of a sample of hospitals, including a psychiatric hospital.
They will interview frontline and senior staff and he would welcome any information from whisteblowers. The probe will also include interviews with focus groups and the public as well as support groups.
A key element will involve an indepth examination of how individual complaints were handled and his office has the power to secure documents.
"The purpose of the investigation is not to examine or re-examine individual complaints, but rather to assess the overall quality of the complaint processes and procedures in place at present," he said.
"I am asking the members of the public to let my office know of their experiences, both positive and negative, of making a complaint about a public hospital.
"Were their concerns addressed? Did they receive a timely response?
"Were they told of their right to complain to the Ombudsman? Were they happy that the hospital had learned from any failings in their care?
"If they didn't make a formal complaint despite being unhappy with the service they received, I want to know why," he added.
One of the issues which emerged from Portlaoise hospital and its handling of baby deaths was that complaints were made but not acted on over the years. Sometimes the complaint officer is diligent but cannot get the senior manager to take it seriously.
Complaints should be discussed at board level and ideally a sample of complainants should be asked to address those in authority at the hospital.
People can email hsecom firstname.lastname@example.org; phone 1890 22 30 30 or write using freepost to: Ombudsman, 18 Lr Leeson Street, Freepost F5069, Dublin 2.