Page last updated at 15:33 GMT, Friday, 8 January 2010

How effective are NHS feedback sites?

By Liz Barclay
Presenter, NHS Punters Speak Out

With a number of websites giving NHS users the chance to comment on their experiences, two patients looked into whether their feedback had helped improve standards of care.

Hospital waiting room
Patients complained of long waiting times and lack of communication

Gill Neill had her second baby, Monty, at the Jessop Wing of the Sheffield Teaching Hospital in September 2009.

As with the birth of her two-year-old, Esme, Gill said the difficult delivery itself was superbly handled.

But her ante-natal treatment left Gill very dissatisfied as clinics constantly seemed to be overbooked.

"I've never known anything like it in any other area of healthcare. I've never ever had to wait three hours to see someone in any other clinic."

She decided to give the hospital the benefit of her views via the Patient Opinion website.

Several times she had turned up for early appointments only to be kept waiting for hours and, in one case, almost forgotten completely.

Making a difference

Gill pointed out mothers need to have an idea how long they will have to wait due to childcare arrangements, which can also cause stress.

I saw the doctor at the hospital and I said, 'Can you do anything quicker, I'm going to lose my job?
Eric Molyneux

The hospital's chief nurse, Hilary Schofield, said they did act on Gill's feedback.

"We've done a lot of work based on Gill's comments: putting more slots in, getting more stenographers trained - they are the people who carry out scans - and we've bought another scanner.

"So hopefully it reduces the length of time that women wait and indeed it has done."

NHS Choices is a government-run website which hospital staff have access to and where patients can find information about hospitals in England.

They can use patients' comments to make choices about where to have their treatment.

And apart from not-for-profit sites like Patient Opinion, there are also commercial alternatives like iWantGreatCare, but hospitals have to pay to use them.

NHS Punters Speak Out
Friday: 8 and 15 January
1100 GMT
BBC Radio 4
Then available for seven days on BBC iPlayer

For Eric Molyneux, 2009 was the year his patience with the NHS ran out.

Following a heart attack three years ago, he suffered a minor stroke a year later and his treatment is still not complete. He has been unable to work and has lost his job.

Eric describes his experience at the Royal Bolton Hospital as a catalogue of cancelled appointments and long waits.

"I understand the different things they try because obviously you've got to try things before you hit the problem but waiting for so long in between appointments is ridiculous.

"I saw the doctor at the hospital and I said, 'Can you do anything quicker, I'm going to lose my job?' It didn't make any difference."

He felt that no-one was communicating with him and he turned to the internet to complain.

But he did not get an initial response from the hospital because he posted his opinion on a website it did not subscribe to.

I doubt very much whether the elderly, housebound patients in my practice are going to be Twittering
Dr Chaand Nagpaul

The aim of this new generation of sites is to drive improvement in healthcare and the development has been heralded as leading a revolution.

Certainly there is an argument that, if hospitals read what previous patients have written, they may spot trends, see where things are going wrong and improve them.

However some health professionals fear that comments may become personal and damage reputations.

'Not representative'

They are afraid that patients who are not offered the treatment they want - such as antibiotics - may complain if a doctor does not comply, despite it not being in their best interests.

There is also a concern that the complaints are not likely to be representative because the people most likely to use the NHS tend to be those least likely to have access to the internet.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, a London GP who is on the GPs' Committee of the British Medical Association, said: "I doubt very much whether the elderly, housebound patients in my practice are going to be Twittering or using the web to feed back information.

"This is not like buying a new car or choosing a holiday.

"We're talking about the public and patients - some of whom are feeling vulnerable, who may be ill - getting sensible and meaningful information, not information that may be posted by a few individuals and may not represent the majority."

It is hard to gauge exactly how useful these sites will be and opinions range from those who think they will add nothing, to those who feel they could help avert tragedy.

NHS Punters Speak Out was broadcast on Friday 8 January at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. It will be available for seven days after that on the BBC iPlayer.

The second part of the series will be broadcast on Friday 15 January at the same time.

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