Page last updated at 14:17 GMT, Wednesday, 25 June 2008 15:17 UK

Complaining about NHS medical treatment in Scotland

It's best to raise complaints early by talking to hospital staff
The NHS works hard to ensure everyone is treated properly and promptly, but sometimes things can go wrong.

There are complaints systems to address patients' concerns and making a complaint can change how things are done in the future.

But it's not always easy, it may take a long time and you don't always get the result you want.

Complaining about NHS treatment or services in:
This guide refers to the system in Scotland. Please see our other guides for how to complain about NHS treatment in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.


If something has gone wrong or if you're unhappy with the service you received, you can complain.

Who can complain?
If you're an NHS patient or somebody affected by NHS actions, you can make a complaint. Friends and relatives of people affected can also lodge complaints.

If you had private treatment paid for by the NHS, you can use the NHS complaints procedure outlined in this guide if you are unhappy with how the private treatment was arranged by the NHS.

However, if your complaint is about the private hospital or the staff treating you there, you must follow the private company's complaints process. See the guide on, how to complain about private healthcare.

What can I complain about?
People complain about a variety of things concerning hospitals, doctors, local surgeries or any other NHS health service, including:

  • Medical treatment, such as not getting the right medical treatment.
  • Buildings and environments where healthcare is received.
  • Information people were (or weren't) given.
  • Waiting times.
  • Behaviour of doctors, nurses or other staff.

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To complain about mental health treatment you should contact the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland, a public body protecting the interests of mental health patients. It can investigate complaints about the use of legal powers in mental health hospitals and nursing homes and can help complainants through the NHS complaints system. The commission has information on the rights of detained patients and consenting for treatment.

When can I complain?
You should raise the issue as soon as possible, but complaints should be accepted up to six months after the incident. In some circumstances the time limit can be extended on grounds of grief or trauma.

Who do I complain to?
In the first instance, you should tell someone working in the same area of the hospital or surgery. This may be a doctor, nurse, receptionist or practice manager. It's often possible to sort out the problem straight away.

Your complaint will be looked into straight away. If you want it can be passed on to a complaints officer, a designated member of staff at the local surgery or hospital.

Some health boards also have patient liaison officers who can help with queries and complaints about health services.

Getting a response
If your complaint can be looked into straight away, you can expect a response within five working days. If it will take longer, you will have a letter within three working days saying so.


Patients in hospital corridor
You can find advice from a number of independent groups
If the complaint becomes drawn out, or if it is a complicated complaint, you'll need to keep a full record of what has been said and any action taken.

Make a note of conversations, phone calls or meetings you have about your complaint. Note the date, time, person you talked to and what was said. Make a copy of all emails and letters.

The Patients' Association, an independent organisation representing patients, has advice on how to complain and how to write letters of complaint. They recommend that letters include:

  • A statement of what you are complaining about, giving details of when and where it happened and the names and positions of members of staff involved.
  • Details of why you are not satisfied.
  • An explanation of anything you have already done (for example, an informal oral complaint), and what happened as a result.
  • Questions you would like answered.
  • Details of what you would like to happen, for example an explanation or apology.
  • A request that you would like your complaint investigated and responded to in accordance with the NHS complaints procedure.

Your letter should contain all the relevant information and should be clear and concise so your complaint is easy to understand. Anonymous letters will not normally be investigated, so remember to include your name and address.


You won't be alone while you make your complaint as there are lots of people on hand to help.

Independent Advice and Support Service
This service is run by Citizens Advice Scotland which has local offices around the country. As well as giving advice on your rights to NHS services, the Citizens Advice Bureaux now receive funding from local NHS boards to provide free information and advice for people making a complaint. For example, they can:

  • Provide information and advice on how to make a complaint.
  • Discuss your complaint and help you write letters.
  • Help with informal resolutions.
  • Help you access medical records.
  • Help make telephone calls.
  • Help you find free advocacy services.
  • Help with requests for independent review or appeals to the Health Service Ombudsman.

Independent advocates
Advocacy is where a trained person stands up for you and helps get your point across. There are dozens of free advocacy services across Scotland which can help you as you go through the NHS complaints process. The Scottish Independent Advocacy Alliance can help you find an advocacy service near you, or the Scottish Executive has a map of independent advocacy services across Scotland.

You may be offered a conciliation service by the person dealing with your complaint. This is when an independent person gets involved to help you and health professionals talk through and resolve your complaint. Both you and the other side have to agree to conciliation for it to take place.

The Patients' Association and Action against Medical Accidents can offer independent advice and support on how to pursue your complaint.


After your complaint has been received and acknowledged, the NHS complaints officer will investigate what happened and keep you informed. They may request an interview with you or ask for relevant information and documents.

They will send you a response as soon as possible, and you should receive a full written reply within 20 working days at the latest.

The response letter from the complaints officer will:

  • Summarise and explain what happened.
  • Say what action is being taken by the NHS as a result.
  • If appropriate, include an apology.

This is known as the 'local resolution' of the complaint and may be enough to put your concerns to rest. But if you are not satisfied that your complaint has been investigated fully and fairly, you can request an independent review.


Operating theatre
An independent review may take another look into your complaint
A complaints manager can give you details of the 'complaints convener' responsible for reviewing complaints in your area.

You should contact the convener in writing within four weeks of receiving your letter.

You'll need to say:

  • What you're complaining about.
  • How the complaints manager resolved the complaint.
  • Why you are unhappy with the local resolution.
  • Which parts of your complaint you think still haven't been answered.
  • Why you think no more can be done at local level.
The convener will not investigate the complaint directly, but will look at how it has been addressed and consult with an independent lay person. They can:

  • Decide that the complaint has been fully investigated and answered at the local level, recommending no further action.
  • Refer your complaint back to the local level, if they think more can be done, for example with the help of a conciliator.
  • Set up an independent review panel to investigate the complaint again.

How the panel's investigation will work
Independent review panels are made up of three people:

  • An independent lay person acting as chairman.
  • A convener.
  • One other lay person, usually a non-executive NHS board member.

The investigation will probably involve collecting documents, taking expert advice and interviewing people involved, including yourself. You will be able to take a friend or relative along to interviews but not a formal legal representative.

Get the right questions asked
An independent panel doesn't always investigate all the circumstances surrounding a complaint. Sometimes they only investigate certain parts. When you get the letter explaining what the panel will be looking at, check that it includes all the issues you want addressed. If you think it doesn't, contact the convener as soon as possible and before the investigation starts.

Investigation report
Within six months of the investigation starting, the independent panel will produce a report. If your complaint is upheld, it may recommend apologies and even changes to improve services in future. If it feels that everything possible was done to address the cause of your complaint or that suitable changes have already been made, the panel may not recommend any further action.

The panel cannot make recommendations on disciplinary matters ' this can only be done by professional regulators.


If you're not happy with the convener's decision or the panel's decisions, you can appeal to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. The ombudsman may get involved if:

  • Your complaint has been handled badly.
  • You disagree with the independent panel's report.
  • Witnesses have not co-operated in the investigations.

The ombudsman's website has a list of what they can and can't investigate. You can appeal to them via an online form.

Complain to the regulators
Once you have gone through the NHS complaints process you can consider contacting the relevant regulator if your complaint was about an individual healthcare professional. They can take disciplinary action against individuals who have acted in an unprofessional or unethical way.

There are separate regulators for nurses and midwives, doctors, dentists, opticians, osteopaths, chiropractors, pharmacists, and other health professionals, such as physiotherapists or dieticians.

Taking legal action
Legal action is the only way to get financial compensation for wrongdoing or malpractice. However, going to court can be a long, expensive and exhausting process.

It is recommended that you think hard about whether legal action is the right course of action for you. The Patients' Association as more information on taking legal action and how to fund it.

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