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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Andrew Gregory Health editor

NHS ombudsman warns Sciensus that patients ‘should not be ignored’

Darryn Gibson, the chief executive of Sciensus, during a panel session at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) 2022 conference.
Darryn Gibson (centre), the chief executive of Sciensus, has received a written warning from Rob Behrens, the parliamentary and health service ombudsman. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

The boss of Britain’s biggest medicines courier has been told to urgently improve its complaints system by the NHS ombudsman amid concerns patients let down by missing deliveries are repeatedly ignored.

In a highly unusual development, Darryn Gibson, the chief executive of Sciensus, has received a written warning from Rob Behrens, the parliamentary and health service ombudsman (PHSO). It says patients “should not be ignored” and must be “listened to and taken seriously” or he will consider taking further action.

The PHSO investigates complaints that have not been resolved by the NHS or by private providers of NHS care. Sciensus is the single largest provider of homecare medicines services to the NHS and has contracts worth millions of pounds.

In an email seen by the Guardian, Behrens told Gibson he had been unable to investigate most reports received about Sciensus because patients had not been able to complete the company’s complaints process. “That is not acceptable or fair to complainants,” Behrens wrote.

Gibson had 28 days from the receipt of the email, dated 16 October, to come up with a plan to reform the firm’s complaints handling process, Behrens said in the email.

In a statement, Sciensus said it worked “very hard” to ensure NHS patients received their medicines on time. Its services had “a 95% satisfaction rating”, it added.

The move follows a Guardian investigation that exposed how Sciensus put NHS patients at risk of harm with delayed, missed or botched deliveries of medicines for conditions including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia and HIV.

It also uncovered how patients’ alarm at vital drugs and medical devices not arriving at their home was often compounded by a struggle to reach Sciensus to complain and fix the problems.

In one of the cases detailed by the Guardian, an eight-year-old girl with Crohn’s disease developed stomach cramping, pain and fatigue, and was off sick from school after Sciensus failed to deliver her injections four times. Autumn Powell had to be prescribed emergency steroids by an NHS doctor to get her condition back under control.

Her mother, Dallas Powell, said the company had been the source of “so much unnecessary stress” – not only by failing to deliver medicine, but then failing to explain why. Sciensus delivered Autumn’s first injection only after the Guardian pressed the company about the case.

In the email to Gibson, Behrens said: “The majority of those who brought their complaint to us said that Sciensus either did not deliver, or repeatedly delayed the delivery of their medications. Several told us they spoke to Sciensus staff about their concerns, and that delivery errors continued even after they brought the issue to Sciensus’s attention.”

The PHSO has been approached by 27 Sciensus patients or their families since 2020 with a formal request for an inquiry to be opened into their experience with the company, according to the email.

“Complainants told us they received poor and inconsistent communication about their appointments with Sciensus healthcare professionals, and that they received poor communication about medication deliveries,” Behrens wrote.

“Several complainants approached us with concerns about Sciensus’s handling of complaints. They told us they did not receive responses to complaints they made through the company’s formal process meaning they were left without the opportunity to resolve their concerns.”

Gibson was warned three years ago that Sciensus was failing patients. Patients with bleeding disorders were left dangerously exposed to internal bleeding as a result of delayed, missed or botched medicines deliveries, he was told in November 2020.

In July, the Guardian disclosed how a cancer patient had died and three others had been hospitalised after Sciensus gave them the wrong doses of chemotherapy.

A spokesperson for Sciensus said: “We work very hard to ensure people get their medicines on time and our patient services have a 95% satisfaction rating. In cases where patients have concerns, we have a well-established process in place to respond to and resolve complaints.

“We will work closely with the PHSO to ensure we are doing everything we can to deliver the best possible service to patients.”

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