In a letter circulated by the Dental Council of Hong Kong (dated July 15th 2008) there was a section headed ‘Prohibition of settling complaints in private'. In the subsequent text, which made reference to the Dentists Registration Ordinance, dentists were advised that it is prohibited to settle complaints privately between a practitioner and a patient.
Many practitioners were understandably concerned that this meant that they should not make any attempt to soothe and resolve a patient's dissatisfaction when this is voiced within the practice or clinic (for example, in the surgery, treatment room or at reception).
This is certainly not a correct interpretation of the Council's letter, and Dental Protection has established that the Council's statement specifically intended to refer to complaints which either:
a) had already been made to the Dental Council, or
b) involved matters which touched upon professional conduct or which had the potential to lead to a disciplinary investigation.
Clearly it would be inappropriate to attempt to ‘buy off' a patient in situation (a) and the Council quite rightly reminded dentists that it had the power to subpoena witnesses (including the complainant) even if their original complaint had been happily resolved in private and they no longer wished to pursue it.
Situation (b) is slightly more complex because ultimately, only the Dental Council itself can determine what is and is not professional misconduct, and which matters are appropriately dealt with by means of a disciplinary investigation. This lack of certainty doesn't help a practitioner or staff member who is facing an angry and noisy patient at the reception desk. On the other hand, there are many situations where a claim for compensation is being pursued separately to, but in parallel with a complaint. Some patients make a formal complaint to bodies such as the Dental Council (or threaten to do so), simply to add some ‘leverage' to their compensation claim with the aim of getting it settled more quickly.
They often do not understand that a Dental Council investigation can discipline a dentist but it cannot achieve any financial compensation, because that is not what it is designed to do.
It must be for a patient to decide if, how and when they wish to voice their dissatisfaction, how they wish to have it resolved and what outcome they are looking for.
Responding effectively to any dissatisfaction expressed by a patient is an ethical and professional responsibility and is very much in the public interest, and therefore to be encouraged. Dentists should acknowledge, listen to and try to resolve complaints, and should do so promptly, respectfully and fairly. A dentist's staff should be trained to assist in this process. In many cases the patient simply wants to be listened to and their concerns taken seriously. In other cases they are seeking an apology and/or an explanation of what happened. They may want you to put things right (for example, by replacing a lost filling free of charge if you only placed it recently).
Until recently the Patients Complaints Mediation Committee (PCMC) was a service provided by HKDA, with considerable financial assistance from Dental Protection. It was available to assist dentists in Hong Kong in situations where it did not prove possible to resolve a complaint within the practice or clinic where the patient was treated.
Discussions are ongoing in relation to re-establishing a service of this nature in one form or another. Until this happens you can still call upon the services of the HKDA if you are a member of that organisation, and it is part of the Honorary Secretary's function to assist informally where possible.