Responding to complaints

There will always be patients dissatisfied with the care they receive, or whose expectations are not met in some way or another. Sometimes this relates to the treatment itself. Sometimes the dissatisfaction relates to administrative matters, such as being kept waiting or the amount charged for treatment. Other times it may stem from a personality clash or a communication breakdown between the patient and the dentist, or another member of the dental team.

If a patient criticises or makes a formal complaint about you, it’s natural to feel hurt and disappointed. Early on in your career it can hurt even more and cause you to suffer a crisis of confidence at a time when you are just starting to establish yourself.

However, it’s important to keep things in perspective and understand that we live in a more consumer-orientated world than ever before. The real test of professionalism is how well you respond to the issues the patient has raised.

Any patient who complains wants to be:

• Acknowledged

• Taken seriously

• Given time to say their ‘piece’

• Listened to

• Given the chance to fully explore their complaint

The successful resolution of any complaint depends on the quality of the initial response. Many studies show that the more times a complainant contacts an organisation after something has gone wrong, the smaller the window of opportunity becomes to resolve the matter to the satisfaction of all concerned.

Case study

‘I had my tooth extracted last week by that young dentist in the upstairs surgery and it has given me nothing but trouble since then. It’s not right that you should have trainee students treating patients without their knowledge. I want to complain.’

Comments like this are common and the practice will want to adopt a sure-fire approach when responding to such a complaint. In the example above, the patient is actually directing the complaint along two routes. Firstly, at the ‘young dentist’ who carried out the treatment, and secondly at the practice about the quality of its staff. In this case, the young dentist concerned should discuss the problem with a senior colleague at the practice or the principal.

The practice employee responsible for handling complaints should then contact the complainant immediately with an acknowledgement, preferably in writing. This acknowledgement should state that the matter will be investigated fully and indicate a date by which a response will be made.

With regard to the treatment carried out, it may be helpful to provide a full written explanation of the treatment provided and instructions issued, even if these were originally delivered verbally. A full explanation can often resolve matters totally.

Further action could involve inviting all parties concerned to a conciliation meeting. This approach could be the key to resolving this particular complaint.

David Croser BDS LDS MFGDP (UK), is a dento-legal advisor at Dental Protection, which offers support, advice and assistance to dentists on any matter that might affect their professional integrity.

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