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Looking back: The NHS at 70

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

Today (5 July) marks the 70th anniversary of one of the world's largest publicly funded health services, our National Health Service. The NHS was created following the Second World War to ensure that good healthcare was available to all, irrespective of wealth and income. 

We celebrated our own landmark 50th birthday last year. In 1967 the Parliamentary Commissioner Act came into law. Then in 1973 the office of the Health Service Commissioner was established by parliament and joined forces with the Parliamentary Commissioner to create the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, as we are known today.

There are some stark differences between the Ombudsman’s office in the 1970s and that of today. For example, in our first full year of operation we received some 500 complaints, far less than the 30,000 we received in 2017. 

Recurring themes

However, some of the themes in our casework from 50 years ago are very similar to what we see today, such as issues around poor communication. Sir Allan Marre noted in his first 1974-75 annual report: 'What may seem to a doctor a straightforward explanation of a simple procedure can be incomprehensible to an apprehensive patient.' 

Similarly, his report highlighted issues relating to waiting lists and the postponement of operations. This indicates that while the scale of the challenges faced by the NHS may be bigger today, many of the issues themselves are not.

NHS triumphs

There are, of course, countless positive achievements to reflect on for anyone contemplating the history of our NHS. For instance, every time I visit frontline NHS staff I am struck by their commitment to providing the best possible care and treatment to patients and their families, no matter how challenging the situation. 

Even when mistakes are made, we know that complaints handlers across the NHS, despite their limited resources, deal effectively with thousands of complaints every year. Throughout our casework history, we have seen many examples of exemplary complaint handling.

The importance NHS staff place on good patient experience and continuous improvement is hugely admirable and they should be commended more often than they are for their dedication to helping patients. 

Working together to improve healthcare

This doesn’t mean that things don’t go wrong and we exist to ensure the healthcare system is held to account when this happens. We also support the NHS to learn from these mistakes beyond the institutions that have made them.

We achieve this by sharing our insight and learning, as outlined in our new corporate strategy, and can be seen through our reports based on our casework such as our recent mental health and eating disorders reports. 

We want to work even more closely with our NHS organisations in the future to help improve local complaint handling and investigations. We should never stop learning from mistakes and by partnering with the NHS we can help to achieve its vision of providing good healthcare for all.