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When the time is right

Post date: 05/06/2020 | Time to read article: 2 mins

The information within this article was correct at the time of publishing. Last updated 16/06/2020

A hygienist member of Dental Protection contacted us to report that the practice she worked in had received a strongly worded telephone complaint concerning the provision of periodontal therapy, which included the removal of calculus and root surface debridement.

The patient, who had not had any oral hygiene treatments in eight years, had complained that the procedure was unnecessarily rough and prolonged, and had resulted in bleeding, puffy and infected gums, as well as severe cold sensitivity. The patient had attended his medical practitioner who had diagnosed gingival infection and prescribed antibiotics.

Unfortunately, this patient was convinced that the hygienist had either used non-sterile instruments that caused the infection or had failed to prescribe antibiotics for the gum infection which he felt must have been visible at the time of treatment. The receptionist had recorded in writing the details of the complaint, and the practice, part of a larger group, had forwarded the complaint to the hygienist for a response.

The hygienist felt overwhelmed by the situation and also ‘outranked’ by the medical practitioner’s diagnosis, and unfortunately dwelled on the complaint for a few days before contacting Dental Protection. A suitable letter was written showing sympathy for the patient’s discomfort and a detailed explanation of the treatment and likely cause of the postoperative symptoms (including the effects of this patient’s low dose aspirin medication).

Unfortunately, the practice manager insisted on reviewing the letter before it was sent and awaited the principal dentist’s return from an overseas wedding, as she had concerns about the sympathetic style of the letter and the use of the words “I am sorry that…..” – worried that this may interpreted as admitting liability. This delay left the patient believing that his complaint had been ignored and he then decided to write to the regulatory body.

The regulatory body reviewed the case and took no further action other than to offer advice, but it was a worrying time for the hygienist. The delay in replying to the patient was the root cause of the escalation.

Learning points

We will never know whether this complaint would have been resolved simply by a timely response of sympathy and explanation, but we do know the patient’s decision to escalate the complaint was based on the lack of a reply and the feeling that he was not being listened to and taken seriously.

The role and place of antibiotics in dentistry is unfortunately a poorly understood process by many of the general public, and often the subject of patient complaints. Dental Protection can guide you towards appropriate references to reflect protocols for non-usage of antibiotics.

The member was feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to deal with the complaint. She also felt that the practice had left her isolated in demanding that she deal with the complaint personally and had little experience with a complaints process. Fortunately, the experts at Dental Protection deal with these situations on a daily basis and could provide advice on responding appropriately. When the complaint was escalated, Dental Protection could again guide the member through the process and provide collegiate support through the anxious wait for a decision.

After the complaint had been resolved, Dental Protection encouraged the member to discuss the delay in replying, caused by the practice wishing to review her response. While a practice owner’s desire to review any reply involving their practice is understandable, it is the individual practitioner’s responsibility to respond to a patient complaint. If a complaint is received by a dental regulator, it will be directed at the registrant personally and not the practice. These discussions resulted in a streamlined process for the practice to deal with any future complaints, recognising the need to support employed practitioners in the process and accept the role of dentolegal consultants in providing expert support to the member involved.

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