Receiving a complaint can be a stressful experience, but if dealt with in a timely manner they can often be resolved at a local level. Unfortunately, delays in responding to the complaint can have a detrimental effect on the patient's potential acceptance of your explanation, apology or offer, and may increase the likelihood of the complaint escalating.

With a greater number of employees who may be the first point of contact for a complaint and a potentially large management team, bigger practices may face more difficulties in organising a consistent approach to complaints. Your input into the practice complaints procedure is essential in making sure members of staff are aware of their responsibility.

Taking the time to engage members of the management, reception, and nursing team can ensure that that you are involved at the earliest possible opportunity if a complaint is received about treatment you provide. This approach may allow you to lead the complaint effectively from the start and reduce the risk of the matter escalating unnecessarily.

Responsibility of care

Each GDC registrant is individually responsible for their care of patients. It is therefore also their individual responsibility to provide a response to a complaint received in relation to that care.

However, confusion can sometimes arise because patients commonly address their complaint to the owner of the practice, or the practice manager, and not to the subject of their complaint. Larger practices sometimes respond to a complaint and answer on behalf of the registrant. Although this is usually well meant, it can leave the registrant concerned out of the process.

Care provided to a patient is ultimately the responsibility of the registrant themselves and not the practice. If the matter escalates, it is important for the clinician who treated the patient to be informed at the earliest possible stage so they have the opportunity to seek the advice of the DDU.

Doing this allows the person with responsibility for the patient's care to address the points raised in the complaint in the manner they consider appropriate, rather than other members of the team responding on their behalf.

Training and guidance

The GDC advises that all members of practice staff should receive training in complaints management, and should know what to do if a patient expresses any dissatisfaction, whether verbally or in writing (Standard 5.1.2). All registrants are also responsible for ensuring there is an effective complaints process in their place of work (see box below).

Complaints can be an infrequent occurrence, and it may be that you've not had to engage with handling them effectively for some time.

It is therefore important for you to be able discuss the complaints process with other team members. You should also be happy that the process will let you know at the earliest possible stage that a complaint about you has been received.

Complaints can be an infrequent occurrence, and it may be that you've not had to engage with handling them effectively for some time. It may be advisable to reacquaint yourself with the processes in your practice and schedule a discussion of them, and the roles of staff members, at a future staff meeting.

This will give you the opportunity to explain the importance of the subject of the complaint being informed immediately, and to check the general processes are adequate and in line with GDC Standards.

The standards expected of you by the GDC are set out in section five of Standards for the Dental Team (2013). The wording places the onus on each registrant:

'It is part of your responsibility as a dental professional to deal with complaints properly and professionally.

You must:

  • ensure that there is an effective written complaints procedure where you work;
  • follow the complaints procedure at all times;
  • respond to complaints within the time limits set out in the procedure; and
  • provide a constructive response to the complaint.'

GDC, standards for the dental team, 5.1.1​

DDU advice and support

Calling our dento-legal helpline at an early stage can help make sure that you receive advice and assistance during the complaints process, including drafting or checking a written response.

The DDU's guide to complaints provides detailed advice in this area for dental professionals. The key points to any complaint are as follows.

  1. Any expression of dissatisfaction should be treated as a complaint, and the subject of the complaint should always be informed. Doing this may prevent matters (which may seem relatively minor) being dismissed by a member of staff inappropriately, and may reduce the risk of a complaint becoming more serious because a patient expected their concerns to be taken more seriously.
  2. A patient may wish to make a complaint verbally. They should not be pressurised to put their complaint in writing as this may aggravate an already upset patient. The discussion should be documented and the main points of the complaint relayed back to the patient so they can confirm accuracy. This document should then be passed to the subject of the complaint.
  3. All complaints should be acknowledged as soon as possible; the generally accepted timeframe is within three working days. The acknowledgement letter would ideally be brief, acknowledging receipt of the complaint and stating the time frame in which a full response will be provided, and a copy of the practice complaints procedure should be enclosed with the letter. If a patient makes a complaint verbally, provide them with a copy of the complaints procedure at the time, and again give them a timeframe so they know when to expect a full response.
  4. Contacting the DDU as soon as you are made aware of the complaint means we can offer the necessary advice, support and assistance at an early stage. If you need help drafting a response to the complaint, calling the helpline as soon as possible will allow us to tell you what we need from you, and provide any other assistance you may require.

This article was correct at publication on 21/09/2016. It 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.

Eric Easson

Eric qualified in 2001 at Manchester University, gained the MFGDP (UK) in 2006 and a Masters in Medical Law (LLM) in 2015. As well as being a dento-legal adviser for the DDU, he works in general practice and as a clinical teaching fellow at Manchester University.

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