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Six steps to resolving complaints quickly

08 May 2024

Receiving a complaint can be stressful, but it can happen to even the most experienced dentist at some stage in their career. Dr Jane Merivale explains the six essential steps to resolution.

A patient can be unhappy with the level of care for many reasons, and a complaint isn’t necessarily an indication of poor clinical performance. However, if not handled properly, it can lead to a claim, inquiry or disciplinary investigation.

If you work in a public hospital or clinic, you should follow the local complaints handling process. If you are in private practice, you should have a process that ensures an efficient and fair resolution to patient complaints – and ultimately improves your delivery of healthcare services.

Either way, you should be aware of best practice in complaints handling and put it into practice. So, we’ve developed Six Essential Steps that can effectively handle a complaint and reduce the risk of it escalating.

Step 1: Stay calm and follow your process

Handling a complaint requires time and commitment, often during a period when you might feel anxious or unjustly accused. It can be tempting to respond quickly to complaints, but this often inflames the problem.

Instead, understand exactly what your patient is complaining about. Is it your diagnosis, your attitude, a clinical error or something else?

If you work in a hospital or clinic, you should follow the process of your local patient relations team. If you are handling the complaint yourself, our experts advise:

  • Log the complaint;
  • review your complaints procedure;
  • identify the concerns that have been raised;
  • check whether there’s any action you need to take in relation to the patient’s care;
  • be aware of patient confidentiality and check for consent issues;
    • Not all complaints are made personally by the patient; if a complaint is made about the service provided to a patient who has the capacity to give valid consent, that patient’s confidence must be respected.
  • review your records and carry out an initial risk assessment;
  • plan how to respond.
You should also contact Dental Protection; our dentolegal advisers can support you and help you formulate your response.

Step 2: Let them know you're listening

Remember, the complainant wants to know they are being listened to. Treat them with respect and courtesy, and don’t make them wait too long for answers; it helps to acknowledge the complaint quickly. If you are handling the complaint yourself, try to address it within the first three days expressing sympathy and understanding. If you work in a public surgery, check that this is being done.

If making contact by phone isn’t possible, send a letter within seven working days, acknowledging the difficulties the patient has experienced, along with an invitation to discuss how you plan to manage the complaint.

Key points:

Step 3: Make a plan

At Dental Protection, we’re often asked to assist members when a complaint has been referred to the Dental Council. Many of these cases could have been resolved much earlier if more care had been taken to investigate the issues surrounding the complaint and to draft a clear and comprehensive first response.

Before responding, we advise you have a plan for investigating the circumstances surrounding the complaint. This helps you identify the concerns raised and respond to all issues covered. It should include the following:

  • Complainant’s name and contact details;
  • their preferred method of contact (if this is email, point out that this isn’t a secure method);
  • patient’s name and details, if different from the complainant;
  • confirmation that consent had been obtained, if appropriate;
  • name of person who contacted the complainant;
  • date of contact;
  • complaint summary, with incident dates;
  • list of issues to be investigated;
  • outcome the complainant is seeking;
  • agreed investigation plan (eg, internal/external investigation and who this will be carried out by);
  • consent to share information with any investigators;
  • agreed timescale for response;
  • how you will respond;
  • additional helpful information (eg, language/disability issues).

Step 4: Investigate

Before you make a full response to any complaint, you should first establish the facts. The investigation should include the following actions:

  • Obtain statements from staff;
  • review records/policies/procedures;
  • obtain information from other sources if necessary;
  • draw conclusions from your findings and discuss with your team where applicable;
  • draw up an action plan to improve patient care and reduce future complaints.
It may be helpful to ask a dentist who has not been involved in the patient’s care to review the clinical management for objectivity.


Step 5: Respond

Your aim should always be to resolve the complaint and avoid more unnecessary correspondence, so take time to present a measured and considerate response.

Be courteous, objective and professional, and apologise if an error has been made.

Include the following elements in your response:

  • An apology (if appropriate) and an acknowledgement of distress;
  • a summary of the main issues raised;
  • the action you’ve taken to investigate the complaint;
  • a clear explanation in response to each issue raised (such as examination and findings, treatment or advice provided, plus any follow up);
  • the action you are taking to reduce future risk and lessons learned;
  • an invitation to meet or contact you again to answer any further questions;
  • details of their redress, through the complaints procedure.
Finally, check your draft with your Dental Protection adviser before sending.

Step 6: Learn from experience

It’s always useful for you and your team to review the actions arising from a complaint. For example:

  • Would it help to share the lessons learned more widely within the dental team?
  • Was the agreed action taken within the set timescale?
  • Did you provide feedback to your team and the complainant, if appropriate?

Always there for you

Our Educational Services team provides a range of FREE risk management workshops and online modules designed to help improve communication and patient safety, and reduce dentolegal risk.

Find out more about our educational resources

Membership gives you access to our team of experienced dentolegal advisers. So if you need help or advice with a complaint or any other legal or ethical dilemma, please get in touch.