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Complaints Handling

The key to complaints handling is a flexibility of approach

The complaints handling process should adapt to the needs of a patient and not the other way round, although there is no single way to handle a complaint, there are 10 key steps that should always be considered.

  • 1. Preparation and training
  • 2. Identifying complaints
  • 3. Accepting complaints
  • 4. Obtaining the views of all the parties involved
  • 5. Investigating fully
  • 6. Resolving the dissatisfaction
  • 7. Responding sympathetically
  • 8. Following-up
  • 9. Learning from the problem
  • 10. Communicating

In a country like South Africa where the level of litigation and HPCSA involvement is increasing, it is essential to have an effective in-house complaints procedure and to make sure that your patients are aware that their concerns can be fully addressed at a local level.

Patients tend to take their complaints down formal channels (e.g. to the HPCSA or to an attorney) when they don’t realise that an informal, effective resolution system is available within the practice, and/or when they don’t have any confidence that their complaint will be taken seriously and resolved effectively direct with the practice, or the dentist involved.

Invite patients to let you know if they are not happy with any aspect of the care, treatment or service they have received. It is sometimes a good idea to have a single, named person who is responsible for patient satisfaction and ‘customer care’ in all its forms – this might include patient feedback (survey) exercises as well as dealing with complaints. Give this person a high profile in your practice so that patients will have the confidence to contact this person before considering any escalation of their complaint to bodies outside the practice.

Click here to view a draft practice complaints policy.

Complaints Handling FAQs
  • Q
    A patient has complained about treatment that I provided, she is known to complain often. Can I just ignore her?

    You are quite right in thinking that some people are more difficult than others. However, a patient is entitled to complain and HPCSA’s guidance states that healthcare practitioners should respond to criticism and complaints promptly and constructively.

    Past experience has shown that a patient who believes their complaint is being ignored or overlooked is much more likely to take it further into another forum. The best way forward in this situation is to acknowledge her complaint, investigate it and provide her with the appropriate response. A complaint which is handled well can actually result in a satisfied patient who then goes on to become one of the dentist’s greatest supporters.

    In this particular situation it may be that the patient will judge your complaint handling against that of other organisations – and this is your opportunity to be the best!

    • Dental Protection’s complaints handling advice is here
    • As a member you are free to contact our dentolegal team for individual advice regarding a specific complaint.
  • Q
    If I refund a patient their fees in response to a complaint, am I admitting liability?

    It seems to be a common misconception that the clinician should avoid giving a refund to a patient. However, in certain circumstances a dentist may wish to provide a refund to a patient; some dentists see this as a business decision which may then avoid the need to deal  with a long and protracted complaint.

    A refund provided as a gesture of goodwill can often resolve the situation amicably. Such a refund should be given with a clear indication, preferably in writing, that it is ‘purely as a gesture of goodwill and with no admission of liability’. A refund given in this way does not increase the likelihood of any further action, nor does it provide the patient any additional grounds on which to base a claim.