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Who do you go to when you want to complain about the NHS?

by Jonathan Watt, CAS Head of Programmes.

This article was first published in the Herald on 4 April 2022.

There’s a ladle in my kitchen cupboard that has a slight bend in its stem. A casualty of the days when I stood at my front door and banged it against various pots and pans to celebrate the NHS.

Those halcyon days seem like more innocent times, don’t they? But we did it gladly, and I’d do it again if asked. The NHS is perhaps the best idea, in concept and in reality, that exists in this country.

In concept, certainly. In reality? Well, most of the time, yes.

However, let’s be honest. As with any organisation of such massive size, the NHS is bound to slip up occasionally. It’s not heretical to say so.

As we’ve become ever more a consumer society, people expect a certain standard from any service provider and they are inclined to complain when they don’t get it. And that’s a good thing. Power to the consumer, to the customer. And to the patient? Why not? Venerated or not, the NHS isn’t exempt from the consumer revolution, which is why all Health Boards have their own complaints department.

A few years ago, the Scottish government moved to create another body that people could go to when they want to complain about the NHS. Requiring it to be visibly independent, fair and trusted, they asked (and funded) the Scottish CAB network to run it. So, we did. And today, the Patient Advice and Support Service (PASS) turns ten years old.  

In this time, PASS advisers have supported over 30,000 people, by giving them information on their rights and responsibilities as patients, empowering them to raise their own complaint about the health service, guiding them through the complaints process and seeking their feedback.

PASS helps people make good complaints - and yes there is such a thing. A good complaint strives for a good outcome, such as an explanation about what did or didn’t happen and, if something did go wrong, the re-assurance that a mistake won’t happen again, and/or an apology.

Sometimes PASS advisers spend only a short time with a client, other times they might work closely with them over a period of months. There can be more to putting together a complaint than just gathering the information. It’s hard work and takes great skill and empathy, which our advisers have in spades, as well as high degrees of knowledge about how the NHS works.

Like all parts of the Scottish CAB network, PASS advice is free, impartial and confidential, and you can access it via any one of our 59 local CABs, or at or 0800 917 2127.

And I want to be clear that PASS is not ‘anti’ NHS. Indeed, the project has a very good relationship with the NHS, which in our experience welcomes being told where it has gone wrong so that improvements can be made.

Banging pots and pans (and vandalising perfectly good ladles in the process) seems now like a pretty random way to salute a service we all love. But yes I’d do it again. Not only say thank you to a wonderful institution, but also to show my respect for an organisation that genuinely welcomes the opportunity to improve.