Communicating effectively with patients

Communication is a two-way process. Listening to patients and understanding their wishes and expectations is as important as talking to them about their care and treatment.

  • Effective dialogue will help make sure you are on the same wavelength as patients or carers, reducing the likelihood of a complaint or claim.
  • If a patient is dissatisfied with their treatment, listening carefully and sympathetically to their concerns can help to resolve the complaint at an early stage.

How to communicate well

Good communication starts from your first consultation.

  • Introduce yourself to the patient and explain your role in their care.
  • Be an active listener. Make eye contact, nod or say 'I understand' occasionally to acknowledge the patient, but try not to interrupt or put words into their mouth.
  • Ask questions to check the patient's understanding, especially when explaining complex treatment plans.
  • Use simple terms and avoid jargon or large amounts of clinical information when explaining treatment options; for example, 'tingling sensation' rather than paraesthesia.
  • Look out for signs of anxiousness or confusion about treatment. Take time to reassure the patient and provide further explanation.
  • Take reasonable steps to help patients with particular communication needs. For example, if a patient doesn't speak fluent English, suggest they bring someone who can interpret for them. If a patient has hearing or learning difficulties, allow extra time if necessary, or involve a relative or carer in the conversation - with the patient's consent.

Expectations vs reality

Check the patient's expectations of what can be achieved are realistic.

  • Make a full record of consent discussions in the patient's notes, and check their understanding of the procedure, what is involved and what they can expect from the result.
  • If possible, give the patient further information to take away.
  • Allow a cooling-off period before an extensive course of elective treatment.

If a patient is clearly unhappy with an aspect of their treatment, be polite and professional and try not to act defensively. Be prepared to apologise if things have gone wrong.

Be transparent

Be clear about the possible costs when explaining the different treatment options, and whether treatment will be provided under the NHS or privately.

The GDC expects dental professionals to tell patients if treatment is guaranteed, under what circumstances and for how long. However, we would advise against offering a guarantee or warranty, which have specific legal meanings. It's acceptable to give an undertaking to refund fees or to repeat treatment free of charge if the treatment fails within a specified period.

DDU advice

  • Surveys can be useful in asking patients about communication within the practice. Are the dental professionals providing their care approachable? Do patients understand the information provided? Do they feel they are being listened to?
  • Offer patients the opportunity to ask questions, and provide a cooling-off period before starting treatment plans.
  • Tell patients how to contact you by their preferred method, and explain who to contact in an out-of-hours emergency.
  • Put in place a system to identify patients with particular communication difficulties. Make reasonable arrangements to help - for example, through an interpreter, or an induction loop for those with hearing aids.

This guidance was correct at publication 24/01/2020. 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.

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