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

Watchdog repeatedly told about private NHS medicines courier

A person takes pills from a pill container
Sciensus is paid millions of pounds each year to provide healthcare at home and transport essential drugs and medical items to patients. Photograph: Getty Images

The watchdog responsible for investigating unresolved healthcare complaints has been warned repeatedly for nine months about problems with Sciensus, a private company paid millions to deliver vital medicines to NHS patients, the Guardian can reveal.

The parliamentary and health service ombudsman (PHSO) is charged with reviewing disputes between patients and the NHS or companies providing NHS services in England. Patients have the right to send formal reports to the watchdog if an organisation has acted improperly, provided a poor service or not put things right.

The PHSO has received 18 official requests to examine grievances against Sciensus since August last year, but has not begun any investigations, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The revelation comes after a Guardian investigation exposed serious and significant concerns raised by patients, clinicians and health groups about Sciensus.

The company is paid millions of pounds each year to provide healthcare at home and transport essential drugs and medical items to patients with conditions including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia and HIV.

The investigation revealed that the company has struggled to provide a safe or reliable service. Patients persistently complain about delayed or missed home deliveries of medication, the Guardian found, with clinicians warning that the health of some has deteriorated as a result.

The investigation also uncovered how some NHS staff experience “daily issues” with Sciensus. Others reported an increase in patients “flaring” as a result of missed or delayed medication. Some have seen a rise in hospital admissions.

Patients affected by delivery problems described becoming anxious and distressed, and expressed concern about the impact on their long-term physical and mental health.

In the wake of the investigation, the Care Quality Commission, the care regulator, said it was “aware of concerns raised” about Sciensus, and was reviewing them.

A PHSO spokesperson told the Guardian that the reason it had not begun investigations into the 18 complaints was “generally because the complainants haven’t exhausted the complaints process with Sciensus”.

“We have asked complainants to come back to us if they are not satisfied with the outcome once they have,” the spokesperson said. However, some patients said their frustration over failed deliveries had been compounded because they had not been able to exhaust the complaints process with Sciensus.

Asked to outline the nature of the grievances against Sciensus, the PHSO spokesperson said: “The complaints are predominantly about delays to the delivery of prescriptions, failure to deliver medication and missing items. Complainants have also said its customer service is bad. It fails to respond to complaints, doesn’t return telephone calls and it’s hard to contact them to chase medication.”

Callout

Since the Guardian investigation, more than 100 patients have come forward to share concerns about the company.

“I cried out in relief when I saw the article,” said one, a 30-year-old woman living with Crohn’s disease in the south of England, who asked to remain anonymous. “Thank you so much for doing this investigation into Sciensus.”

The civil servant described a host of problems, including delayed medication deliveries, messages being ignored, and at one point the company accidentally cancelling her prescription altogether.

“My two-year experience with Sciensus has been a catalogue of failures,” she said. “I have lost count of the number of times I have burst into angry tears after a call with one of their call centre staff and demanded of myself: ‘Is this just me?’ It turns out it is not just me.”

A Sciensus spokesperson said: “The parliamentary and health service ombudsman is not currently investigating any complaints. In cases where patients have concerns, we urge them to contact us – we have a range of support services, including a priority helpline and same-day emergency dispensing.”

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