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Dame Julie Mellor of the NHS Ombudsman has said that as patients are reluctant to make complaints and are then often met with a defensive attitude the situation is forming a "toxic cocktail."
Dame Julie said that although similar problems have been reported recently her own research spanned years and found the problems were long-standing.
She told ITV News: "I'm not commenting on recent weeks or months, we've been looked at a period of years what's been happening."
The Department of Health said it is aware there are issues surrounding complaints in the NHS, which is why it has commissioned reports on the systems.
New research involving patients, carers and staff found many felt the NHS complaints system was dated and difficult to navigate.
Staff also said complaints procedures between different hospitals were confusing and there was a need for more training on responding to complaints.
Changes would include:
- Access to a free patients' advice service 24 hours a day
- Each patient given the name of a senior person - usually the ward sister - as the first contact for concerns
Dame Julie Mellor of the NHS Ombudsman has warned that the health service needs to change its attitude towards complaints.
The NHS needs to abandon a culture of "defensiveness" when dealing with patient complaints, the NHS Ombudsman has warned.
Dame Julie Mellor said there is a "toxic cocktail of reluctance by patients to complain and defensiveness by hospitals in handling complaints" - and called for a step change in how the NHS reacts.
The calls echo those of Labour MP Ann Clwyd who is preparing a report for the Prime Minister. Earlier this month Mrs Clwyd said that "a complete overhaul" of the complaints system was needed.