Responding to complaints from third parties

Complaints can come directly from the patient, but sometimes a relative or other third party will contact the surgery first.

In our experience, dental professionals who receive a complaint are most concerned about how to respond. But it's also important to bear in mind who has actually made the complaint, as this will affect what your next move should be.

Confidentiality and consent

Investigating and responding to complaints does not remove a dental professional's duty of confidentiality to the patient.

If someone other than the patient makes a complaint, you'll need to make sure they have the authority to do so. This will usually involve contacting the patient and seeking their express consent to discuss concerns about their care with whoever has made the complaint.

When contacting the patient, be very clear about the sort of information that will be shared, and how. It is also important to agree who should receive a copy of the response.

Sometimes, the patient at the centre of the complaint might be unaware that someone has complained on their behalf. They may ask that any future correspondence is sent to them rather than the person who has complained or they may even withdraw the complaint if they feel differently.

Should you respond - and how?

You may find the following points helpful in determining how and whether to respond to a complaint from a third party:

  • Never assume that someone complaining on behalf of a patient has authority to do so.
  • Complainants should normally be current or former patients, or their nominated representatives, which can include a solicitor or a patient's elected representative (for example, an MP).
  • Patients over 16 who have capacity should usually be able to make a complaint themselves. You should obtain their consent before responding to a complaint from their parents.
  • Children under 16 who are able to do so can also make their own complaint.
  • If a complaint is about a child, you need to make sure the person who has complained is an appropriate person to make the complaint. This would usually require the authority of someone with parental responsibility for the child.
  • If patients lack capacity to make decisions for themselves, representatives must be able to demonstrate sufficient interest in their welfare and be an appropriate person to act on their behalf. This could include a partner, relative or carer, or someone appointed under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 (or Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000) with lasting power of attorney.
  • If the patient is a child or lacks capacity, you need to be satisfied that the representative is acting in the best interests of the person on whose behalf the complaint is made. If you are not satisfied that the representative is appropriate, you should not consider the complaint and must give the representative reasons for this decision in writing.
  • The duty of confidentiality remains even if the complaint concerns a deceased patient. In some circumstances, it may be necessary to gain the consent of the executor of the patient's estate or their personal representative.
  • Dental professionals have an ethical duty to respond to complaints appropriately. The GDC page on Complaint handling best practice has downloadable guidance (updated June 2019).
  • Remember, every scenario is different and our dento-legal advisers are here to guide you if you need specific advice or assistance in responding to complaints. You can contact us on 0800 374 626.
  • For more information, you can also read our guides to the NHS complaint procedures in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

We also offer an interactive course that covers all aspects of effective complaints handling and offers the chance to earn two hours of free verifiable CPD.

This page was correct at publication on 28/03/2023. 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.


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