It’s no real challenge to heap scorn on UK daytime TV. Endless cookery, antiques and house shows and then Jeremy Kyle – who, for those unfamiliar with his work, is like Jerry Springer without the class. In among the dross though are some real “customer care” lessons, that health services could learn from, although mostly these are of the ‘what NOT to do variety.

Watching ‘consumer protection’ company exposé shows is fascinating, if only to see the staggering ineptitude of companies as they fail to carry out the work or provide the service that people have paid for and expect. Sometimes these may be genuine errors but more often it seems more like deliberate deception or downright crookery.

All of this is bad enough but watching the corporate reactions to people’s complaints and the TV show investigations takes us to a whole new level of indifference and contempt. We see companies that will not acknowledge complaints, who won’t answer phone calls, who will not divulge details of their customer service staff or senior managers, who obfuscate and delay, blame the customer and generally accept no responsibility for their product or service. While they may think that these tactics are somehow protecting their company or reputation they look no more than shifty, guilty, evasive, dishonest and determined not to help their customers.

As I watched, I thought about how we handle patient’s and relatives’ complaints in health care and wondered if we were any better than a shonky builder or rogue used-car yard. In the UK, the NHS spends nearly £100 million per year on systems for dealing with complaints and yet the process seems as difficult for patients and families as ever. A recent report highlights the labyrinthine process that any potential complainant would have to follow to get anywhere: “Pursuing a complaint requires a personal investment of considerable time, determination and resilience on the part of the complainant.” (p.8) In other words, be prepared for a long uphill battle against a bureaucracy that will stymie you at every turn.

No doubt these are the same hospitals and organisations who trumpet about how they are ‘patient-centred’ and “fully committed” to responsive care. The nadir of hospital approaches to patient complaints was in the 2009 Patients Association report, “Patients not numbers…People not Statistics”. In the section of the report where organisations responded to the relatives’ there appears, with a couple of notable exceptions, a litany of risk manager/lawyer inspired organisational bureau-babble, cut-and-paste condolences, vision statement rehashes and more invitations to pursue ‘the proper channels’.

We can surely do better than this and should not wait until the investigative journalists and TV consumer shows take up the cudgels on patients’ behalf. For a start, let’s learn from what consumers want from companies and services and from the organisations who handle complaints really well. For starters, does your hospital website have easily accessible contact details such as a name, email address and direct phone number for the complaints officer, the Director of Nursing and even the CEO? Are complaints seen as a cause of shame and blame or an opportunity to learn and improve services? Are complaints systematically incorporated into a research and service improvement agenda? Do you treat complainers as threats to the hospital’s reputation or potential catalysts for improvement? Are responses to complaints individually and personally addressed or are they just a standard form that uses ‘mail merge’ to give the impression of a personal response? Believe it or not, people can tell the difference. Do you respond with not only a letter but with a personal phone call and an offer to meet?

It is concern enough that patients or relatives should feel the need to complain in the first place, but don’t add insult to injury by treating their complaint in ways that should have the TV cameras and consumer troubleshooters doorstepping you at the hospital demanding answers.

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