Get on the patient's wavelength to avoid complaints - DDU advises

Dental professionals should have an open and honest dialogue with patients about what can realistically be achieved by dental treatment to avoid mismatched expectations and resulting complaints, the Dental Defence Union (DDU) said today.

The advice is contained in a new analysis of almost 4,000 dental complaints, which has just been published in the DDU's digital journal. Allegations about inadequate or unsatisfactory treatment were the commonest reason for patients to make complaints about dental professionals, accounting for 38% of the 3,885 complaints notified in the two year period 2013-14. A significant number of these cases arose because of technical failings, but a common allegation was that treatment had fallen short of the patient's expectations.

Eric Easson, DDU dento-legal adviser, said:

'The vast majority of patients are satisfied with the care and service they receive, but the chances of a complaint can increase when dental professionals and patients are not on the same wavelength.

'Patients may have been influenced by a variety of sources such as TV, magazine and the internet, where there is plenty of scope for misinformation and misunderstanding. So even if a patient appears well informed, don't assume they understand what a particular treatment might involve.

'Our complaints study shows that gaining the patient's trust and establishing an honest and open dialogue, are often as important as the dentist's professional skill. It's only by understanding the patient's expectations, such as the appearance of a restoration, that you can try to address their priorities and plan to meet their expectations in your proposed treatment plan.

'It's advisable to take as much time as the patient needs to ensure that they understand the treatment being proposed such as the likely aesthetic outcome, the longevity of their restoration, and any foreseeable complications. You could also provide written material for the patient to take home. However, this should not be viewed as a substitute for discussing the proposed treatment with the patient in a way they can fully understand. Ensure these discussions are documented in the clinical records.

'Patients may have unrealistic expectations, but it is our job as dental professionals to ensure the patient understands what's achievable before we begin any treatment.'

The study found that a further 31% of complaints alleged failure to treat or delay in diagnosing a condition like dental decay or periodontal disease, while disputed fees and refunds accounted for 18% of complaints. Communication problems were the main allegation in 13% of cases, although communication breakdowns were an underlying factor in the majority of complaints.

This guidance was correct at publication 13/10/2015. 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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