The Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) publication Guidance on a Model Complaints Handling Procedure is accompanied by a Statement of Complaints Handling Principles
The Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010, which led to the creation of Healthcare Improvement Scotland, has also allowed the SPSO to publish model complaints handling procedures. This guidance is the basis on which the SPSO will develop these procedures in partnership with service providers.
The Act requires public service providers under the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction to ensure that they have complaints handling procedures in place which comply with the Statement of Principles.
The guidance is intended to provide broad direction and support to public service providers in improving their complaint handling procedures. Underpinning the guidance is the intention of getting it right first time with the emphasis on quicker, simpler and more streamlined complaints handling.
The SPSO has also set up an internal unit, the Complaints Standards Authority to support providers in improving complaints handling procedures. This unit will be separate from the complaints investigation team within the Ombudsman’s office.
The guidance indicates the process to be followed in a model complaints handling procedure, as follows:
Frontline resolution, such as:
- On the spot apology
- Complaint addressed
- Complaint details taken, outcome and action taken, recorded and used for service improvement.
Investigation for issues that are complex, serious or ‘high risk’, as follows:
- The complaint is investigated and a definitive response is provided within 20 working days following a thorough investigation of the points raised
- Responses signed off by senior management
- Senior management should have an active interest in complaints and use information gathered to improve services.
Independent external review (SPSO or other)
The SPSO will assess whether there is evidence of service failure or maladministration by the service provider.
The guidance provides various information and principles, such as:
- Wherever possible, organisations should ensure that staff members who are the subject of a complaint should not handle or respond to the complaint. Neither should front line staff who may have a clear conflict of interest in the matter.
- Where a written complaint has been successfully resolved at the front line stage, by either face to face, telephone or email communication, there is no additional requirement to send further written confirmation to the service user, although an organisation may choose to do so.
Front line resolution should be completed within five working days. Where this is not possible then the matter should be dealt with formally by means of investigation and at this stage, the aim should be to ’get it right first time’. The goal is to establish all of the facts relevant to the points raised and provide a full, objective and proportionate response that represents the service provider’s definitive position. The guidance indicates that it is for each service provider to decide who should investigate and respond to complaints. Service users should have a single point of contact for the complaint who should, for general practitioners, be the appointed complaints manager.
The usual time frames apply in that a complaint should be acknowledged within three working days and a full response should be provided within 20 working days. Where there are justifiable reasons for extending this time scale, the complainant should be kept updated of the reason for the delay and given a revised time scale for bringing an investigation to a conclusion.
At the end of the investigation, the decision may be formally communicated to the service user face to face or in writing. Responses should be based on the facts established by the investigation and a full explanation should be given about how those facts were used to form the conclusions reached.
Where an investigation identifies a service failure and a service provider proposes to take action to resolve the service users dissatisfaction, the correspondence should include details of what will be done and when. The final decision letter should tell the service user about their right to complain to the SPSO, should they be dissatisfied with the outcome of their complaint. It should inform the complainant that they should take the matter to the SPSO within 12 months of becoming aware of the issue which gave rise to the complaint.
Dentists in general practice are, of course, aware of the requirement to have a practice-based complaints procedure and to comply with the Terms of Service as set out in the National Health Service (General Dental Services) (Scotland) Regulations 2010. These latter regulations came into force on 2 July 2010 and slightly amended the previous complaints handling requirements for General Dental Practitioners in Scotland. One subtle change in these new regulations allowed the practice-based complaints procedure to deal with complaints made in relation to one or more dentists or other persons employed or engaged by the contractor.
Whilst the new SPSO guidance applies to general dental and medical practitioners providing NHS care in Scotland, it does not amend the existing principles of complaints handling but rather adds some flesh to the bones of current requirements.
The guidance explains that an effective complaints handing process is:
- User focused
- Simple and timely
- Thorough, proportionate and consistent
- Objective, impartial and fair
- Seeks early resolution
- Delivers improvement.
Dentists in general practice should ensure that:
- They have an effective practice based complaints procedure;
- They are aware of the Terms of Service and the requirements of complaints management;
- The practice based complaints procedures comply with SPSO guidance.
Dentists in NHS management positions should familiarise themselves with this new guidance. Dentists and practices will no doubt wish to learn from complaints in order to improve both service delivery and to provide information which can assist practitioners in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their own practice and assisting decision making in relation to CPD and Personal Development Plans.
Click here to view advice booklet on Handling Complaints for clinicians practising in Scotland.