The scene

In one instance a member called for advice having recently seen a patient for a filling. She was preparing to use the handpiece when it slipped from her hand and hit the patient on the lip. The handpiece didn't have a bur in place so the patient wasn't seriously hurt, and after apologising and establishing the patient was okay, the dentist completed the treatment.

Soon afterwards the member received an email from the patient, in which he expressed his gratitude that the member had been conscientious about the incident, had apologised so promptly and had made sure he was okay afterwards. While the email was generally positive, it also mentioned the patient had felt slightly embarrassed at work because of the bruise to his lip that had come about as a result.

The member wasn't sure quite how to approach this or what the patient might want from the situation, and called the DDU helpline for advice.

DDU advice

The DDU adviser she spoke to agreed that although the tone of the email was positive, there was no reason the member shouldn't continue to be empathetic and apologetic. The incident had happened and nothing could change that, but she should nevertheless do what she could to remain on the professional high ground and support the patient.

In this instance the patient wasn't explicitly looking for an apology or making a complaint, but by restating her recognition of what had happened, the member would be able to reassure the patient she was acting in his best interests. The adviser recommended calling the patient in person to double-check he was okay, and to reiterate her apology. It would also be an opportunity to go above and beyond by suggesting the patient seek medical advice if he thought it necessary, and to offer to liaise with any other clinicians as needed and with his permission.

As with any incident, keeping an audit trail of all communication would be important, and if she felt it was necessary the member could follow-up the phone conversation with an email inviting the patient to contact her if there were any subsequent problems. On the slight off chance that the patient's position changed and he decided to make a complaint, the adviser told the member to contact the DDU again for further advice.

Learning points

It's important to remember that complaints - or other interactions with patients, such as this one - can very often be used as an opportunity to learn lessons and improve relationships, and don't have to be viewed as solely negative experiences. If you need more information and resources on effective communication, visit our website or call our advice line.


This article was correct at publication on 04/05/2020. 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.