By Simon Wilson, medical negligence expert and senior solicitor at Neil Hudgell Solicitors
FOR anybody who has a much-loved elderly family member currently in the care of the NHS, or perhaps a close relative who they know will soon be in need of hospital treatment, national newspaper headlines this week will have made very difficult reading.
England’s health watchdog Dame Julie Mellor has claimed tens of thousands of elderly patients are enduring appalling NHS care because they are simply too frightened or polite to complain.
The allegations went as far as saying some are being effectively starved on wards and treated without a shred of dignity.
I commented recently on the worrying situation of patients not being able to rely upon information regarding waiting lists for treatment, something particularly poor when dealing with the elderly and vulnerable.
Now, misdiagnosis, poor staff attitudes, substandard nutrition and a lack of communication with patients and families when dealing with older patients have been identified as common areas of neglect within the NHS.
Worryingly, as Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, Dame Julie believes she only sees the ‘tip of the iceberg’, as she fears many over-65s are simply too reluctant to complain about the treatment they receive.
Cases highlighted included an older man with Alzheimer’s and diabetes who was prevented from going home to die beside his brother as he wished, simply because the trust involved had failed to discuss it quickly enough.
In another case, a hospital did not consult the family on a decision not to resuscitate, and in a third, staff switched off a patient’s life support against a family’s express wishes – all horrifying accounts which were no doubt unbearable for family members of those who passed on.
In my work as a medical negligence specialist at Neil Hudgell Solicitors, I deal with many cases in which families speak of their hurt over their loved one’s treatment. Often they regret not having spotted things earlier, and not having voiced their concerns at an early stage.
Whilst it may be difficult for the patients themselves to make a complaint about their treatment, it is key that their family members know how to spot the signs and act accordingly.
All too often, the reluctance of the NHS to accept its wrong-doing, and of family relatives to seek legal advice as they fear a long drawn-out legal process, means the NHS is not being held to account as it should.
Under the present system, people must complain to the offending trust first, and only if they are dissatisfied can they contact the ombudsman.
Given that a recent report from the patient watchdog Healthwatch England highlighted a “hopelessly complicated” procedure for complaining to the NHS is, with 75 different organisations involved, the scale of this problem should not be underestimated.
Dame Julie has called for a single body to handle all complaints about health, social care and other services, something which looks entirely sensible, and more importantly, a more efficient method of ensuring the NHS is held to account.
For our part, we will continue to support families by helping them cut through the many barriers to the compensation they deserve quickly and efficiently, either for themselves or a loved one.
We see the hurt, worry, and anger of families when the elderly relatives are mistreated, and despite all the reforms announced after the Mid Staffordshire scandal, the latest stories and reports suggest plenty still needs to be changed.
That is why our services are increasingly in demand and our expertise is being sought more than ever before.
If you feel your complaint has been dealt with unfairly by the NHS in England, contact www.ombudsman.org.uk.