How to write a response to a complaint

A properly composed written response is a crucial part of the overall complaints procedure.

  • Writing a response to a complaint takes time and careful thought.
  • A thorough, detailed first response should help to minimise further correspondence from the complainant.
  • It should also help to avoid dento-legal complications, such as a claim or escalating the complaint to a third party like the ombudsman or Dental Complaints Service.

Notifying the DDU

If you receive a written or oral complaint, it's important to let us know immediately. Careful complaint handling in the early stages can be crucial in achieving a satisfactory outcome for all parties.

We can give you advice on drafting a letter of response to a complaint, based on the full information you provide, or draft a response for you to consider sending.

How to address a complaint

A carefully worded response can often prevent the complaint going any further, and most complaints are resolved satisfactorily in-house without becoming a claim. The general principles for responding to complaints are set out below.

All complaints should be:

  • treated seriously
  • acknowledged straight away
  • investigated promptly
  • recorded in writing in a designated complaints file
  • handled in accordance with the practice complaints procedure.

Setting out the response

If an oral complaint can't be resolved within one working day, the complaint should be acknowledged in writing, accompanied by a copy of the practice complaints policy.

Take care when writing a response to a complaint; in the unlikely event the complaint becomes a claim, any reports may be disclosed to the patient's representative.

  • The response should be provided on either headed paper or the practice email template.
  • The author of the response should be identified with their full name and relationship to the patient (for example, their treating dentist, assistant, locum, dental hygienist, practice manager etc.).
  • The response should be written in the first person and give a clear idea of who did what, why, when and to whom.
  • Use the active voice to say who did what, and be specific; "I re-examined you the next day, as confirmed in my clinical notes," rather than "You were examined again the next day."
  • It should be clear and understandable to a non-dental professional, avoiding jargon, dental abbreviations and technical terms.
  • Don't assume the reader has any background knowledge of the case, or of dentistry, but do include all the details a dentally qualified third person would need to understand the clinical sequence.
  • Original records must never be altered, as to do so can lead to more serious consequences than the original complaint.
  • You should only correspond with a patient's representative if the patient has given consent, preferably in writing.

It's rarely appropriate to express an opinion on the acts or omissions of a colleague, unless under direct supervision, even with their consent. For complaints involving care provided by more than one clinician, the complaints manager may decide to provide a joint response that covers all concerns raised in respect of each person involved.

What should be included in your response

  • A factual description of events in the order they happened.
  • A description of every relevant consultation, telephone or other contact and reference clinical notes as appropriate, including:
  • the patient's presenting complaint each time they attended the practice
  • relevant medical and dental histories
  • findings on examination, diagnosis and treatment plan
  • estimated treatment costs
  • all explanations, advice and treatment provided, together with details of any mishaps or complications encountered
  • whether the patient was seen alone or accompanied by another person. If accompanied, give the name and status of the other person (for example, spouse, mother, etc).
  • A response to each significant concern raised by the complainant, as far as possible, including any opinion on what happened.

This can be done by setting out the chronology of events, but it is often better to deal with the chronology and specific concerns separately. Many complaints arise from a misunderstanding, and providing a detailed description of the dentistry involved might clear up any misunderstanding. In some cases it might help to reference accepted, current teaching and practice.

  • It's important to say not only what was found, but also what was looked for but not found - for instance, MB2 canal.

No-one expects dental professionals to remember every detail of a consultation that appeared to be routine at the time. It's acceptable to quote from memory, but if you can't recall the details, state what your 'usual' or 'normal' practice would be in similar circumstances.

However, be very clear about which details are based on memory, which on contemporaneous notes and which on 'usual' or 'normal' practice.

  • Details of any offer made the patient to resolve the complaint, such as to refund or waive the fee as a gesture of goodwill, or an offer of remedial treatment, either personally or by referral to a colleague, within or outside the practice.
  • An apology, if appropriate. Many complaints arise because of a breakdown in communication and perceived rudeness. Remember, an apology is not an admission of liability or wrongdoing, and can help to resolve complaints.

A full and detailed response should be provided within the time limit set out in the practice complaints procedure. If you can't respond within this time limit, inform the patient or their representative, so they know their complaint is being taken seriously.

A carefully worded response can often prevent the complaint progressing further. If needed, contact us or advice and we can help draft and check responses.

This page was correct at publication on 15/06/2022. 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.