Effective complaint handling

Handling complaints quickly and effectively is key to avoid the situation escalating.

The majority of complaints notified to the DDU by members seeking our assistance are resolved at a local level. If you receive a complaint, please contact us as soon as possible so we can offer advice to help avoid an escalation. Our advice follows the general principles set out below.

  • The whole dental team should understand the practice complaints procedure, and regular training is essential.
  • Speed, sympathy and a willingness to listen can often be all that are needed to resolve concerns.

Be calm

Don't react defensively to complaints. They should be dealt with calmly, constructively and in line with the practice complaints procedure. GDC Standard 5.1.6 explains that a complaint can be an opportunity to improve your service, and you should share lessons learnt with all team members.

Dealing with complaints

  • Patients can complain verbally or in writing. The time limits for both the acknowledgement and the response are variable between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. You may find our journal article on Practice complaints procedures helpful.
  • As far as is reasonably practicable, help complainants to understand the complaints procedure or let them know how they can access independent complaints advocacy services - Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) in England, Community Health Council advocacy service in Wales, Patient Advice and Support Service (PASS) in Scotland and the Patient and Client Council support service in Northern Ireland.
  • The GDC expects you to have a clearly written practice complaints procedure that is easy for patients to understand.
  • Keep a written record of all complaints. File complaint correspondence and documentation separately from clinical records.

Verbal complaints

  • If a patient makes a verbal complaint, spend a few minutes discussing it there and then. If other patients are waiting, arrange a further meeting, video or telephone call.
  • The member of staff receiving the complaint should make a written record of the complaint. Don't ask the patient to put it in writing themselves, as this can risk escalating the situation.
  • If a patient phones the surgery to complain, it could be helpful to arrange a face-to-face meeting or video call to discuss the matter. It may be more difficult to answer a complaint over the phone.
  • If a patient makes a verbal complaint, reassure them that whatever they say will be treated sensitively and in confidence, and will not prejudice their future care.

Respond effectively

  • A carefully-worded response can often help prevent the complaint progressing further. Please contact the DDU, as we can help draft or check responses. See our guide to written responses for more information.
  • Address all the significant points raised by the patients, and offer a suitable solution for each one.
  • Consider what outcome the patient wants and if in doubt, ask them to specify the outcome they are seeking.
  • If the complaint concerns dissatisfaction with some aspect of treatment, as a gesture of goodwill you may choose to waive or refund the fee, particularly if the treatment outcome has been unsatisfactory.
  • You may also offer remedial treatment free of charge. Such an offer should not prejudice your position in the event of a claim for clinical negligence, and may well help to resolve the complaint.
  • If the patient is seeking financial compensation, contact us for advice.

Your complaints checklist

  • Is your team well trained in handling complaints in accordance with your practice protocol?
  • Are your responses to complaints timely, professional, measured and sympathetic in tone?
  • Have you offered the patient an initial discussion to plan the investigation?
  • Have you confirmed the agreed arrangement?
  • Have you provided a full, detailed response to the patient?
  • Has the complaint been signed or overseen by the responsible person, or someone with delegated authority?
  • Have you recorded the action taken in responding to a complaint?

This page was correct at publication on 06/01/2021. 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.