The NHS complaints procedure: local resolution

Wherever possible, it's best to try and resolve complaints at the local level. Here's what you need to know.

Each UK country has their own NHS complaints procedure, which applies to all NHS bodies including dental practices. See our separate guides on this for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  • The complaints procedure is in two stages - local resolution and the relevant NHS ombudsman.
  • Local resolution is the quickest and most efficient way to resolve a complaint.

How are complaints made?

  • Complaints can be made to either the organisation providing care (such as the dental practice) or direct to a primary care provider or the commissioning group.
  • Once a complainant has chosen who to complain to, they can't then choose an alternative route.

Time frames

The time limit for registering a complaint varies between the four UK countries. However, we advise you consider accepting complaints after the time limit so the complaint can be managed locally. The time limit for both the acknowledgement and the response also varies between the four countries. For details, see links to the relevant UK country.

A copy of the practice complaints policy should be provided to the complainant. This is also a GDC requirement (GDC Standards 5.3.1).

Who can complain?

  • Current or former patients aged 16 and over should normally complain themselves. However, they may nominate a representative, such as a relative or solicitor.
  • Practices should make patients aware of where to get independent help.
  • Never assume that someone complaining on behalf of a patient has the authority to do so. Make sure the patient has consented for clinical and other confidential information to be disclosed to the third party.
  • Children under 16 who are competent to do so can also make their own complaint.
  • If the complaint is on behalf of an adult or child who lacks capacity, the practice must be satisfied that that complainant is acting in the patient's best interests.

What should my practice do if we receive a complaint?

  • Apologise where appropriate. A genuine and sincere apology is not an admission of liability, and can often defuse a complaint.
  • The complaints manager should make a written record of the date it was received whether it has been made verbally, electronically or in writing.
  • All complaints records should be kept separately from the patient's clinical records.
  • The practice should invite the complainant to discuss the complaint and to agree an approach. It can be helpful to meet to discuss the concerns raised. Offer the presence of a conciliator, if you think the situation would benefit from this and the patient agrees.
  • The practice needs to confirm the details of how the complaint will be handled - for example, by explaining how it will be investigated and suggesting timescales for the response, in line with their complaints policy.
  • Practices are required to complete a thorough investigation and keep the complainant informed about progress.

Responding to complaints

  • When acknowledging complaints, it's important to do so as soon as possible. Most complaints can be resolved quite quickly.
  • The GDC advises dental professionals to "respond to complaints within the time limits set out in your complaints procedure".
  • If you need more time to investigate a complaint, you should tell the patient when you will respond. In exceptional circumstances where you're unable to resolve the complaint within the usual timescale, you should update the patient regularly (at least every 10 days - GDC Standards, 5.3.6) with your progress.
  • The responsible person, or someone with delegated authority to do so, should sign all complaint responses.

How we can help

The DDU can help check and draft complaint responses. The response should:

  • contain an explanation of how the complaint was investigated
  • detail any conclusions reached
  • identify anything that needs remedial action
  • explain whether any action is planned or has already taken place
  • explain the complainant's right to take the matter to the ombudsman within the appropriate timeframe, if they're still dissatisfied.

For more info on responding to a complaint, see our separate guides on what to send us when you receive a complaint, and how to write a response.

Our journal article on practice complaints procedures also offers more information and the option to earn CPD.

Helpful links

HSC Complaints - Standards and guidelines for resolution and learning

The NHS Scotland Complaints Handling Procedure

This page was correct at publication on 06/04/2022. 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.