Reasons for patient complaints

Most dental professionals will receive a complaint from a patient at some time in their career, so understanding why they occur is vital.

Why do complaints happen?

In the DDU's experience, most complaints arise from:

  • the patient being dissatisfied with some aspect of treatment or service, or
  • the patient's expectations not being met.

Factors that can trigger a complaint may include:

  • the perceived attitude of the treating dental professional or other member of the dental team
  • time-keeping for surgery appointments
  • the standard of treatment provided
  • the basis on which treatment was provided (NHS or private) was unclear
  • fees and charges.

Despite this, it's important to remember that sensitive, prompt and careful handling of a complaint can all help increase the chances of early resolution.

How complaints are made

A patient can make a complaint in a number of ways:

  • verbally - to you or another member of the practice
  • in writing or by email
  • via a third party, including the NHS or the dental complaints service for private patients.

Patients who complain often want one or more of the following:

  • an explanation of what happened and why
  • an assurance that it won't happen again, to them or anybody else
  • an apology - a sincere expression of regret and empathy
  • remedial treatment, either by the dental professional or by referral to an appropriate colleague inside or outside the practice
  • financial recompense - possibly waiving or refunding the fees.

The importance of communication

Clear communication between dental professionals and patients, and between members of the dental team, can often help to avoid complaints or resolve them at an early stage.

Keep patients informed at all times about mishaps or complications that arise during treatment, about appointments running late and any other aspects of treatment or service that may lead to dissatisfaction. A prompt and frank explanation is also advisable.

Offer a genuine apology in the event of an error. Saying sorry is not an admission of liability, and it may be all the patient wants.

  • Make sure you have a written in-house complaints procedure in place.
  • Ensure all members of the dental team are familiar with the practice complaints procedure and their role in helping to address complaints.
  • Display the complaints procedure clearly within the practice.
  • Put a process in place to monitor and analyse complaints.
  • Take all practicable steps to reduce the risk of complaints recurring.
  • Keep an accurate record of the complaint in a separate file.
  • Make every reasonable effort to resolve complaints at practice level if at all possible, but don't hesitate to contact the DDU for advice.

Learning from complaints

Every member of the dental team can learn something from a complaint, and can reflect on them during staff meetings using anonymised case examples.

Analysing all complaints as part of governance procedures may prevent or reduce the risk of a similar incident happening again.

For more complex complaints, the practice could hold a significant event meeting. This would allow you to:

  • discuss the complaint in detail
  • analyse what went wrong, if anything, and make any changes necessary
  • share details of action taken with the dental team to ensure the problem is not repeated.

This process is also helpful in encouraging the whole practice to adopt a positive and open approach to complaints.

This page was correct at publication on 19/04/2022. 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.