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A lively and well attended meeting of Southwark
Pensioners Action Group on 24th November 2004 heard the Manager of the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) at King's College Hospital, Cathy Varley, explain what PALS do.

The service was set up in July 2001 to take over some of the work of the Community Health Council, which was about to be abolished. Unlike the CHC, however, PALS operate within the hospital rather than as an independent outside body.

As well as offering advice and information about all the services provided in the hospital, they can point people in the right direction for advice and help on problems in other parts of the NHS. For instance, Guy's and St Thomas' Hospitals have their own PALS (7188 8801 for St Thomas'; 7188 8803 for Guy's), while problems regarding GPs, dentists, opticians and pharmacists are dealt with by Southwark PCT PALS (telephone 0800 5877170).

The PALS office at King's is near the main entrance to the hospital, in Bessemer Road. It is open from Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm, or you can contact them by phone (7346 3601), by email (pals@kingsch.nhs.uk) or by writing to PALS, King's College Hospital, Denmark Hill, SE5 9RS.

With a staff of only three, King's PALS dealt with 4242 contacts in the year 2003-04. Most of these involved only the provision of information, but in about one in four cases PALS were actively involved in sorting out a problem or concern. Their intervention has resulted in a number of simple measures to improve services, such as ensuring that letters to eye patients can be read by people with poor vision, alterations to a hospital bathroom to accommodate wheelchair users, and improvements in sign-posting.

Where necessary, PALS will arrange a meeting with the doctors concerned, at which a problem can be discussed and, if possible, resolved. If the person remains dissatisfied and wants to make a formal complaint, PALS will advise on how to do this, and how to get help from the Independent Complaints Advisory Service (ICAS) which covers the whole range of health services.

Complaining can be a lengthy affair. The various stages are explained in a leaflet obtainable from the PALS office. First, patients are advised to speak to a senior staff member such as the ward manager. If that doesn't work, PALS can refer you to the separate patient complaints staff, who will look into the matter and produce a written response.

If you are still not satisfied, you can inform the King's NHS Trust and, if their response is inadequate, you can take your complaint to the Healthcare Commission, an independent inspectorate set up by the Government this year. As a last resort, you can complain to the Health Service Ombudsman.

By the end of our meeting, two things were clear. The first was that anyone with a problem or complaint about the services provided by King's College Hospital which can't be cleared up on the spot should consult PALS. The second was that there are far too many different organisations involved in dealing with complaints about the NHS.