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GDC standards Q&A - Principle 5 - Have a clear and effective complaints procedure

Post date: 18/09/2014 | Time to read article: 5 mins

The information within this article was correct at the time of publishing. Last updated 03/04/2019

Why would I want to draw attention to the practice complaints procedure?  Surely that will encourage patients to sue me?

Patients should not feel intimidated, or that complaints are unwelcome. Many complainants are fearful or uncertain about the likely response from the dentist or his/her staff and this might encourage them to take their complaint elsewhere. It is better to eliminate any such potential barriers to patients, and make it clear to them that you are keen to resolve any complaints or dissatisfaction in-house.

It is counter-productive to view complaints in a negative light. Although it is not always easy, complaints can and should be seen as an opportunity to:

  • resolve the patient’s dissatisfaction in-house, limiting the damage caused by the complaint;
  • rebuild relationships with the patient, by showing them that you and your staff are truly professional, that you have their best interests at heart, and that you genuinely want them to be happy and satisfied with the treatment and care provided. Very often a patient, whose complaint has been satisfactorily resolved, can become the greatest and most vocal ambassador for the practice. A professional approach to a complaint bodes well for the practice’s approach to patient care and treatment generally;
  • improve procedures so that the same problem doesn’t arise for other patients.

By offering patients a prompt and constructive response you can demonstrate that you have engaged with their complaint. A complainant who feels that they have been ignored or overlooked is very much more likely to take matters further into another forum. Showing that you care, exploring solutions and getting things done is the key to achieving an amicable resolution.

Practice owners should note that the new standards guidance places an emphasis on training the team to handle complaints from patients and the importance of being able to demonstrate that the training has happened. It is also a CQC requirement under the provisions of Regulation 19 of the Health and Social Care Act 2008 (Regulated Activities) Regulations 2010 to bring the complaints system to the attention of service users.

What details must I give my patients about how to complain?

It is desirable to tell patients what your complaints procedures are, in simple terms, either in your practice leaflet or (if appropriate) in a separate leaflet given to all new patients and available in the practice (perhaps in the waiting or reception areas). The same information can also be displayed on the website or as poster in the waiting room. The important thing is to display details of the practice complaints process where it can be seen by patients, so that they do not have to ask for a copy.

The details of the leaflet may vary from practice to practice according to manpower and other resources but the GDC requires that it:

  • is clearly written in plain language and is available in other formats if needed;
  • is easy for patients to understand and follow;
  • provides information on other independent organisations that patients can contact to raise concerns;

In describing the complaints process it would be helpful to show that it:

  • allows you to deal with complaints promptly and efficiently;
  • allows you to investigate complaints in a full and fair way;
  • explains the possible outcomes;
  • allows information that can be used to improve services to pass back to your practice management or equivalent; and
  • respects patients’ confidentiality. 

What should I do if the dentist involved in a complaint is away on holiday and I am unable to stick to the time limits described in our practice complaints leaflet?

The GDC doesn’t define specific timings for managing a complaint but it does expect you to respond to complaints within the time limits that the practice has set out in its own complaints procedure. The NHS has its own guidance on limitations for dealing with complaints and these can vary according to the country you work in.

Read our advice booklets on complaints handling

Sometimes things can take a little longer to investigate, particularly if key staff members are on leave or off sick. If you find that need extra time to investigate a complaint, you should tell the patient when you anticipate being able to respond. If there are exceptional circumstances which mean that the complaint cannot be resolved within the usual time scale, you should give the patient regular updates (at least every 10 days) on progress.

What is the best way to stop a complaint arising?

It is impossible for any professional person to stop every complaint from arising. It is better to adopt a positive state of mind and accept that occasionally you will get a sub-optimal result or that for a variety of reasons (some beyond your control) that the patient is disappointed or unhappy with something that happened during their visit.

By encouraging patients to express themselves as they leave the treatment area you can often get them to tell you what could have been done better from their perspective.

There are many ways of identifying dissatisfaction:

  • Prominently displaying your complaints procedure so that patients don’t have to ask for it and encouraging them to share any negative views with appropriate staff
  • Train all staff to identify the ‘body language’ associated with dissatisfaction. The aim is to encourage patients to tell you if they have a problem, before they tell someone else
  • Comment or feedback cards - usually only completed by patients who are particularly displeased or delighted with service. It is, of course, helpful to collect positive feedback as well as negative and neutral feedback

By handling this issue at a local level it may be possible to contain the issue and prevent it from escalating out of your control. It can also help to avoid the dissatisfied patient from bottling up a store of complaints.

Dental Protection’s Handling Complaints advice booklet offers lots more guidance on this subject. It can be found in the Risk Management section of the website.

What is the best way to avoid a complaint arising?

It is impossible for any professional person to stop every complaint from arising. It is better to adopt a positive state of mind and accept that occasionally you will get a sub-optimal result or that for a variety of reasons (some beyond your control) that the patient is disappointed or unhappy with something that happened during their visit.

By encouraging patients to express themselves as they leave the treatment area you can often get them to tell you what could have been done better from their perspective.

There are many ways of identifying dissatisfaction:

  • Prominently displaying your complaints procedure so that patients don’t have to ask for it and encouraging them to share any negative views with appropriate staff
  • Train all staff to identify the ‘body language’ associated with dissatisfaction. The aim is to encourage patients to tell you if they have a problem, before they tell someone else
  • Comment or feedback cards - usually only completed by patients who are particularly displeased or delighted with service. It is, of course, helpful to collect positive feedback as well as negative and neutral feedback

By handling this issue at a local level it may be possible to contain the issue and prevent it from escalating out of your control. It can also help to avoid the dissatisfied patient from bottling up a store of complaints.

Dental Protection’s Handling Complaints advice booklet offers lots more guidance on this subject. It can be found in the Risk Management section of the website.

« Principle 4 - Maintain and protect patients' information

Principle 6 - Work with colleagues in a way that is in patients’ best interests »

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