If patients' dental care doesn't give them the experience they thought they'd have, frustrations can easily arise. Here's our advice on managing patients' expectations over access to care.

While some aspects of our day-to-day life are returning to normal, or at least an accepted 'new normal', access to healthcare remains behind the curve of where we were pre-pandemic.

Hardly a week goes by without backlogs and access problems within healthcare being covered in the media, and from talking with our members and supporting them in their daily working life, we are seeing an increase in patient complaints arising out of limited access, in both the primary and secondary care settings.

Some patients are becoming angry and frustrated with the need for urgent dental care arising from the backlog. Unfortunately, these frustrations are often directed at members of the dental team.

Throughout the acute phases of the pandemic, the dental profession did its very best by patients, working through testing times both mentally and financially. There are reports now coming through of the severe impact COVID-19 had on dental services, with a significant reduction in the numbers of treatments that we were able to deliver.

Sadly, some members are reporting increased levels of stress and low moral within their teams, which is compounded by reports of a shortage of registered dental professionals to fill vacancies.

The backlog within the secondary care referral system is having a further impact on primary care - the dental equivalent of 'bed blocking'.

The type of complaints our members are having to deal with include:

  • capacity issues leading to not being able to accept new patients or patients who have not attended regularly - both NHS and private
  • lack of access for both emergency care and routine examination appointments
  • delays between examination appointments and being seen for completion of the treatment plan.

Access advice

As ever, managing the expectations of patients at the initial point of contact is very important to help avoid a complaint. As outlined below, practices might find it useful to put in place some clear guidance for all team members, to help reduce the risk of receiving a complaint.

  • Consider having set emergency slots each day to try and assist with urgent care needs of patients and avoid adding time pressures by having to slot patients in.
  • At the time of making an examination appointment, make it clear to the patient what the average waiting time for follow up care is likely to be
  • Have a well organised and transparent waiting list in operation, and explain to patients that they will be prioritised based on the urgency of their treatment needs.
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  • Clearly explain the waiting lists in your area for onward referrals and how this is outside of your control.
  • If you need to cancel an appointment, be clear with the patient why this is necessary and explain how the rescheduling will be prioritised.
  • Ensure that the practice is delivering against its full NHS contracted sessions so that no criticism can be raised about favouring private patients over and above the needs of NHS patients.
  • When offering private options, be careful that this is not seen to be selling a way to 'queue jump'.
  • Provide clear timelines for elective/cosmetic work, such as limited treatment orthodontics.

If patients know that you empathise with their frustration, and you can reassure them that you're dealing with them fairly and working as efficiently you can, it's often possible to bring them onside and minimise the number of complaints received.

As ever, for those patients who do complain, it is important to have a clear complaint procedure in place that is understood and followed by the whole dental team. Dealing with complaints around issues of patient access is covered in more detail elsewhere in this issue.

Here to help

If you have a patient who is unhappy about any aspect of the service you're providing, don't hesitate to call our advice line. We can talk through the details of your particular situation and advise on how best to deal with it.

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.