Despite dental professionals' best intentions, patients can't always access care when they want it. In those cases, it's important to manage and deal with any complaints fairly and effectively.

At the DDU, we know patients can complain for any reason. Complaints most commonly relate to the dental treatment provided, but patients can also complain about their ability to access that care and their frustrations surrounding this.

Many patients have an expectation that they will be able to access treatment when they need it and arrange appointments at a time convenient for them. When this is not possible, complaints can follow. We explore managing patients' expectations around access in another article in this issue.

There are different reasons why access might be an issue within dental practices. For example, some dental professionals within a practice focus on specific treatments, such as short-term orthodontics, dental implants or facial aesthetics, and it's not uncommon that they are the only clinician who provides this type of treatment.

Problems can then arise when this clinician leaves the practice, as there may be incomplete treatment plans or patients who need ongoing care. In these circumstances, it is important for not only the departing clinician, but also the practice, to explain the situation as early as possible so patients understand how they are able to access ongoing care.

If the practice plans to recruit someone who can provide this type of treatment, patients should be made aware of the likely timescales involved in doing so. Alternatively, or in the interim, external referrals could be offered, and it's wise to keep notes in the records about the information provided.

It is also helpful to have general information available either in the practice reception or on the website, which could help manage expectations and make complaints less likely.

Even if a dental professional is providing general dentistry, when they leave a practice, it may not be possible for someone else to take over caring for the patients they were seeing. Responsibility for resolving such issues is ultimately shared, as frustrated patients can direct complaints at the departing clinician as well as the practice.

Because of this, it's important to communicate effectively about any changes ahead of time. In the first instance, dental professionals and practice owners may want to discuss their plans and the options for patients, so they can agree what information will be provided, and when. Once this has been agreed, it should be possible for a consistent message to be given by all who work in the practice, which should help avoid many complaints.

Dental complaints e-learning

If a patient is unhappy about their ability to access care, handling any complaints quickly and professionally should go a long way towards avoiding escalation. It usually helps to empathise with patients about their frustration and explain what steps are being taken to address any access issues.

Remember that verbal complaints are just as valid as written complaints. Don't ask patients to put their complaint in writing, as this might simply  encourage them. It's also important to have a clear and effective complaints procedure that patients can be directed to, and that all practice staff are trained in and familiar with. This is all covered in much greater detail in our dedicated journal article on the topic, where you can also earn CPD.

If you're a DDU member and you receive a complaint, you can contact our advice line for guidance on what further steps might be needed.

This page was correct at publication on 13/02/2023. 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.