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
  • a failure to meet the patient's expectations.

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.

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
  • a voluntary (ex-gratia) payment or goodwill gesture, such as waiving or refunding the fees paid.

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.

Learning from complaints

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

Dental practices should consider reflectively analysing all complaints as part of their governance procedures and take steps to prevent or reduce the risk of a similar incident happening again.

Sensitive, prompt and careful handling of a complaint can increase the prospects of early resolution.

For more complex complaints, perhaps involving more than one member of the dental team, the practice could hold a significant event meeting 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 practice as a whole to adopt a positive and open approach to complaints.

This guidance was correct at publication 09/01/2019. 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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