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Health Service Ombudsman failing families – Patients Association

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman is failing families, leaving them distressed and totally worn down, warns a new report from the Patients Association.

The charity says it receives weekly calls from people who feel let down by the service, adding that it is “unaccountable and wholly ineffective”. The Association is calling on the Public Administration Select Committee to address the failings of the PHSO and “establish a truly independent, transparent and people’s Ombudsman”.

Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “The PHSO cost to the public purse is around £40m a year, but we have no idea how it really does its job. The total cost to society and families far exceeds the £40m funding the Ombudsman receives. The emotional cost for families far outweighs the huge financial cost.”

The PHSO responded by saying it was embarking on a “modernisation drive” to improve its service and added: “Every time someone has a poor experience of our service it really matters to us and we work hard to put things right.”

Last month the Ombudsman revealed it had investigated 2,199 cases in 2013/14 – six times more than the previous year.

The new report from the Patients Association contains a number of case studies that the charity say are examples of the Ombudsman’s ineffectiveness.

One of the cases concerns Sam Morrish, a three-year-old from Devon, who died in 2010, but it was only in the summer of this year that the ombudsman pronounced on the case.

In another case, a family raised serious concerns about the care afforded to their daughter who died of anorexia. Despite the family spending a year compiling a detailed dossier for the PHSO, it took the Ombudsman over two months to appoint an investigator to their case.

In a further case, a woman died after keyhole surgery for a hernia repair, and the family described the two-year process with the Ombudsman as “gruelling and destructive”. They added “It has forced us to spend almost three years of our lives trying to limit the harm the Ombudsman’s so-called investigation has done to us”.

Prolonged investigations, which rely on families to produce all the evidence, can lead to patients or their families having to give up their employment to deal with the demands and inadequacies of the PHSO, the report adds.

Murphy said: “We wish we could say cases like that of Sam Morrish and those other families are a once in a lifetime situation, but they are not.  We receive cases every week where people are distressed and even traumatised by the way their case has been mishandled by the PHSO.

“The Health Ombudsman should be a court of last resort where uncorrected mistakes by the NHS can finally be put right, but the process is not fit for purpose and often ends up compounding the grief of families.  The quality, accuracy, objectivity, effectives, openness and honesty of its reports is shameful.”

A Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman spokesperson said: “As announced last month, we’ve embarked on the second part of our modernisation drive. We are engaging with complainants, including some of the people mentioned in this report which features seven cases, to help draw up a service charter – a set of promises to users about what they can expect when they use our service. We are pleased the Patients Association has agreed to be part of this work.

“We are committed to acting on feedback from users of our service. The first part of our modernisation drive was to investigate more cases. In 2013-14 we investigated six times more complaints than in previous years (384 to 2199). We have maintained satisfaction levels and halved the average time taken to complete a case. We are modernising our service to provide an even better service to the 27,000 complainants whose cases we deal with every year.”

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