'More than 200 patients and their families have accused the country’s foremost health watchdog of letting them down by taking sides with the NHS organisations it is supposed to be investigating.
A damning new report claims the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman is “secretive”, “defensive” and “adds to the already great distress “ of families who have suffered harm at the hands of the health service.
The Patients Association’s report was compiled after it was contacted by NHS patients and their families angry at the way they have been treated by the PHSO, which was itself set up to investigate complaints that individuals have been treated unfairly or have received poor service.
It comes as bereaved parents whose babies died following a litany of failings at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust called for the resignation of the ombudsman for failing to properly investigate the scandal and refusing to admit its own mistakes.
An independent inquiry last week found that 11 babies and one mother died as a result of “a lethal mix” of failures in a “seriously dysfunctional” maternity unit at Furness General Hospital, which is run by the trust. Parents told the inquiry how the ombudsman refused to investigate what was happening at the hospital.
The Patients Association’s report found that:
* More than half of the patients claimed the PHSO “takes sides with the organisation it is investigating”
* Nearly half felt it was “unwilling to challenge” NHS organisations
* That the ombudsman “fails to investigate complaints fully”
* It “produces final reports full of inaccuracies”
* And it “makes patients feel like they are a nuisance for complaining”
Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association, said: “Patients feel completely let down by the PHSO; which overlooks or ignores evidence, takes far too long to communicate with families, is dismissive and insensitive and leaves patients feeling that they are in the wrong for raising a complaint.”
The report cites the case of Avril Bonsall, a retired English lecturer who died aged 64, in October 2011, after waiting 94 days for surgery on her ampullary cancer at Nottingham’s Queen’s Medical Centre teaching hospital.
This appeared to be in breach of the NHS’s maximum 62 day target. But when her husband Brian complained to the PHSO it’s initial report it named the wrong cancer, failed to make any reference to the cancer target and its investigator appeared to be ignorant of the target’s existence.
Mr Bonsall, 73, a retired physics lecturer, of Draycott-In-The-Clay, Derbyshire, told The Sunday Telegraph: “I was staggered by their lack of knowledge. The draft report even got the type of cancer my wife had wrong. I hoped for an independent and thorough investigation by qualified, knowledgeable and competent staff at the Ombudsman. This was not the experience I had. I felt very let down.”
In another case Laurence Poulton complained to the PHSO about the care his late wife Christina received for her ovarian cancer, claiming that the overly negative attitude of oncology staff at the Sussex Cancer Centre in Brighton “had devastating consequences” on him and is wife’s ability to cope or “develop any sense of control”. Mrs Poulton, a retired upholsterer, died aged 61 in August 2013.
Mr Poulton, 62, a former computer consultant, of Hassocks, West Sussex, said the ombudsman’s subsequent report into his complaint had the effect of letting his wife down once again. He said of it: “Facts were wrongly stated, wrongly interpreted and in addition other relevant facts were not considered at all. I felt totally let down by the ombudsman. They seemed very ready to evade things and not confront failings at the hospital.”
The Morecambe Bay families say the ombudsman’s failings were further highlighted by the independent inquiry into what happened at Furness hospital in Barrow, Cumbria, between 2004 and 2013. This uncovered a series of failures “at every level” from the maternity unit to those responsible for regulating and monitoring the trust which runs the unit.
Among the “shocking” problems found were substandard clinical competence, extremely poor working relationships between different staff groups and repeated failure to investigate adverse incidents properly and learn lessons.
When babies died, midwives conspired to cover up the failings, the inquiry chaired by Dr Bill Kirkup suggested.
But parents of babies who died say that when they first raised their concerns about standards of care at the hospitals their fears were dismissed by the PHSO.
James Titcombe, whose newborn son Joshua died at Furness hospital in 2008, from a simple infection which could have been treated with antibiotics, said the ombudsman refused to investigate the death, saying such an inquiry would be “unlikely to result in a worthwhile outcome”.
It was only after Mr Titcombe began judicial review proceedings over the PHSO’s decision that the organisation undertook an investigation. This concluded last year that there was “no evidence that the midwives colluded to present 'false evidence’”.
However, these findings were contradicted by Dr Kirkup’s report, which found midwives had made a “significant and regrettable attempt to conceal” the truth about Joshua’s death and that their reaction “was allowed to distort some of the processes of the investigation that ensued”.
Dr Kirkup’s report expressed a “degree of disquiet” about the PHSO’s original decision not to investigate Joshua’s case and concluded that “the PHSO failed to take opportunities that could have brought the problem to light sooner”.
Following the publication of his report the PHSO issued a statement saying it “stood by their investigation” into Morecambe Bay and claimed the report had not questioned their findings”.
But after Dr Kirkup intervened to rebuke the PHSO, it revised its statement, saying: “The Morecambe Bay investigation had access to more evidence, including a range of interviews and over 15,000 documents from 22 organisations and therefore it’s not surprising that he reached different conclusions.”
Mr Titcombe, along with Carl Hendrickson, Liza Brady and Simon Davey, who all lost babies at the troubled hospital, last night called for the head of the PHSO, Dame Julie Mellor, to step down.
They said: “Time and time again we feel that the ombudsman’ office has shown the wrong culture and has acted in an indefensible way. Our families wish to lead the call for Dame Julie Mellor to resign so that new leadership can start to change this culture and recover the shattered creditably of this organisation. The many patients who have been forced to experience this tier of the NHS complaints system deserve nothing less.”
The PHSO said that since Dame Julie arrived at the organisation in 2012, it had made substantial improvements, including moving from investigating hundreds to thousands of complaints.
A spokesman said: “Our decisions are independent, robust and evidence based. We recognise that we still need to change our service and culture further, by making it less complex and confusing and making it more empathetic. We are engaged in a public consultation to develop a set of promises to service users.”
The ombudsman acknowledged that in just over half of all the cases it investigated it find that services had acted correctly, saying: “It is therefore understandable that some people will be disappointed when we don’t uphold their complaint.”
The PHSO said it would study the Patients Association’s report and apologised for failing to investigate Mr Titcombe’s complaint in 2009. “We let his family down and apologise unreservedly. We welcome and endorse the Morecambe Bay investigation,” said the spokesman.