Having a proper complaints procedure can help you solve patient issues and restore calm, as DDU dento-legal advisers Sarah Ide and David Lauder explain.

Receiving a complaint can be a stressful and frustrating experience. Regardless of how good the clinical or communication skills are, many dental professionals will receive a complaint from a patient on more than one occasion during their career.

Unfortunately this is part of working life for most professional people today, but being prepared in the proper management of complaints can help to reduce the stress involved and hopefully help resolve the matter swiftly.

Having a complaints procedure in place is both helpful and necessary. As dento-legal advisers we've seen that if handled properly, many complaints can be managed in the workplace. This can help to prevent the patient seeking further advice from a solicitor, or referring the case to another organisation like the GDC. In fact, when handled effectively, a disgruntled patient can transform into one who sings your praises.

As with any form of patient management, showing empathy and dealing with a complaint quickly and fairly are likely to help. This isn't just common sense - it's also a requirement for all GDC registrants.

The GDC Standards for the Dental Team 2013 states that all registrants must:

  • make sure there is an effective complaints procedure readily available for patients to use, and follow that procedure at all times
  • respect patients' right to complain
  • give patients who complain a prompt and constructive response.

We have both seen many instances where a swift, empathetic response coupled with an appropriate apology and explanation go a long way towards satisfying unhappy patients. We have also seen that picking up the phone to seek advice from the DDU as soon as a complaint is received can be of great help when managing a complaint.

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Calming the waters

Here are our top tips for helping to resolve complaints.

  • Keep the complaints procedure simple.
  • Deal with complaints quickly and efficiently, before they have time to grow.
  • Don’t insist that a verbal complaint is put in writing. This might inflame the situation and can encourage the person to complain to someone else.
  • Make sure your complaints procedure is kept up to date and make sure that everyone in the workplace knows about it.
  • Listen carefully to the person making a complaint and involve them fully in the process of sorting their complaint out.
  • Try not to be defensive and treat every complaint as a possible negligence claim, but do discuss it with the DDU a soon as possible.
  • Above all, say how sorry you are that something has gone wrong. Remember, an apology does not mean that you're admitting responsibility.

If you're not directly responsible for overseeing the complaint - for example, if you are an associate or you work for a corporate organisation - it's important that you satisfy yourself that the complaints procedure is appropriate and that you ensure you're involved in the response.

The complaints procedure should stipulate the timelines for responding to the complaint and who is responsible for overseeing the complaints procedure. It should also explain how the complaint can be escalated if the person remains dissatisfied.

It's worth checking the complaints procedure documents that are given to patients. Older ones often suggest that patients can complain to the practice and then to the NHS if they remain dissatisfied. In fact, in the first instance the complaint can be to one or the other, but not both.

Details of the relevant Ombudsman should be added for complaints about NHS treatment; for complaints about private treatment include the Dental Complaints Service's details. There's no requirement to tell patients that they can complain to the GDC. If your current complaints procedure states this, consider removing it, as it can lead to an unnecessary escalation of a complaint.

This page was correct at publication on 19/12/2015. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.