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Complaint management – here to help

30 November 2023
Proactively managing a potential complaint before it has the chance to develop is always the best approach, where possible – Dental Protection’s Dr Simrit Ryatt, Dentolegal Consultant, looks at how we can help manage complaints on your behalf.

There will always be patients who are dissatisfied with their treatment, or whose expectations are not met in some way. It is important to appreciate that some dissatisfied patients do not necessarily complain; many of them simply decide never to return to the practice, and some of these patients will tell the tale of their dissatisfaction to anyone who is prepared to listen – for weeks or months to come. 

Often, patients want to be heard and provided with an opportunity to express their dissatisfaction so they feel their concerns have been acknowledged. Others want an explanation or an apology and some form of appropriate remedial action, whether this involves financial recompense or not. Unless the opportunity is grasped to address the patient’s needs and resolve these complaints quickly and effectively at an early stage within the practice, there will always be a risk that the patient will take their complaint to another authority outside the practice.

The proactive approach 

Dental Protection has always urged members to be proactive when receiving a complaint. There is often a very small window of opportunity to  proactively manage the complaint and try to reach a quick and agreeable resolution for all parties involved. We know from our experience that some members go through a range of emotions when they receive a complaint. The emotion can be the catalyst for an initially defensive reaction, however, being proactive but with a negative or angry response can easily inflame the situation instead of calming things down. 

The best strategy is always to find out why the complaint has been made and find a solution that is mutually acceptable. A well-managed complaint lowers the risk of the patient feeling they have to involve any third parties in the process, particularly the Dental Council. By denying the patient a well reasoned and balanced response, we make it much easier for them to follow the path of least resistance and vent their frustrations, not only about the cause of their complaint but the way it has been handled. Patients and professional regulators expect concerns or complaints to be acknowledged, listened to and dealt with promptly.

How we can help

We are here to provide advice and support to our members for a variety of situations. Members are encouraged to contact Dental Protection as soon as a complaint is received, or in the event you anticipate the situation with a patient is beginning to unravel and are seeking guidance on how this can be managed to try to prevent a complaint from occurring in the first place. The earlier you contact us, the more help we can give you in how best to manage those important early stages. We will be able to assist you in how to respond to a patient via email or through direct discussion, and also help to manage patient expectations.

We have an out of hours advice line for urgent situations that cannot wait until the next day. Our team of dentolegal consultants and legal panel colleagues can provide immediate guidance and advice over the telephone. If specific written advice is required, we may ask you to provide additional details before further considered advice is provided. You are also able to request assistance through our contact form on our website or via your local Dental Association.

Case study: You are not alone

Since normality had resumed following COVID-19, Dr W was glad to be back in clinic, although he been particularly busy recently, working long hours. Events during the pandemic had placed additional financial worries on the clinic and this had caused Dr W a considerable amount of anxiety. 

Dr W had not taken any significant time off work since the pandemic began. Tomorrow was Friday, with the weekend break nearly in sight; Dr W was looking forward to spending time with his family,attempting to unwind and de-stress. He was completing a straightforward procedure of a scale and polish for Mr F, a gentleman in his late 50s with a generally healthy mouth. There was minimal calculus to remove, but Dr W could see a fair amount of staining. 

Dr W diligently performed the scale and polish, and treatment was completed 15 minutes later. He was just about to leave when he could hear a commotion at reception. He was surprised to see Mr F shouting at his reception team demanding a refund; Dr W immediately tried to defuse the situation. It transpired Mr F felt Dr W hadn’t removed all the staining from his teeth. He was angry he had been charged full price for this treatment as he felt it hadn’t been completed properly. 

Dr W was perplexed by this as he was certain all the stains had been removed, so he attempted to invite Mr F back into the surgery so he could review the patient and understand what the problem was. However, Mr F advised he had lost trust in Dr W and did not want to be seen by him. Before any other suggestions could be made Mr F hurried out of the clinic and as he left, he threatened to contact the Dental Council.

Dr W had a restless evening and he considered contacting Mr F to discuss the matter further, but he reflected that he attempted to resolve matters already and Mr F was adamant he had lost trust in him, so surely any further resolution attempts would be hopeless. Dr W had a sleepless night and struggled to work the next day. He was meant to be attending his daughter’s recital on Friday evening but as he was extremely anxious from Thursday's events, he didn’t attend and stayed at home on his own. Dr W spent the rest of the weekend feeling worried and the issue remained on his mind for a number of weeks. 

In what seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Dr W received correspondence from the Dental Council as Mr F had lodged a formal complaint. Dr W contacted Dental Protection and spoke to a dentolegal consultant. He became overwhelmed and revealed he was already struggling at work due to the stress of the pandemic and the complaint from Mr F had tipped him over the edge. Immediate reassurance was provided on the phone by the dentolegal consultant and Dr W was advised of the counselling service which is available to members at no additional cost. 

This really reassured Dr W, and he immediately felt comforted, understood and supported. The dentolegal consultant also requested that Dr W send in all the information relating to the case, including the correspondence from the Dental Council and his treatment records.

The following day, the dentolegal consultant had reviewed the complaint to the Dental Council and the patient had submitted photographs of their teeth, which were supposed to demonstrate the residual staining that had not been removed. It was clear the patient was referring to the darker dentine which was visible at the incisal edge due to attrition, and Dr W had not left any staining present. Dr W explained to the dentolegal consultant that he felt frustrated he was not provided with an opportunity to explain this to the patient, and this was included in his explanation to the Dental Council that outlined the misunderstanding.

Following review, the Dental Council accepted Dr W’s explanation and confirmed the case would not proceed. Although it was an agonising wait, Dr W was grateful for Dental Protection’s support and assistance throughout the duration of this matter. 

Learning points

• With hindsight, had Dr W contacted Dental Protection when the patient initially complained, we may have been able to prevent Mr F from progressing his concerns to the Dental Council. Dental Protection would have suggested Dr W take proactive action and assisted him in drafting a conciliatory well-written response. 

• In our experience, calmly written responses can reduce the possibility of a patient raising their concerns elsewhere. Our team are here to provide all levels of support and there is no problem too trivial. It is often helpful to speak to a dentolegal consultant to introduce a level of objectivity to a situation where situations become all-consuming.