Are you a fast mover?

A rapid response unit saves lives – a rapid response to a patient complaint can save face. DDU dento-legal adviser Nick Torlot explains how…


There are a variety of reasons to trigger a complaint, but many complaints involve communication problems of one sort or another. These could range be:

• The attitude of the dental professional

• The basis on which the treatment was provided

• The fees charged.

Should you receive a complaint, remembering a few helpful tips can help ensure your reputation and self-esteem remain intact and that your response is appropriate.

1. Rapid response

Like a rapid response unit, you should ensure you respond to patient complaints as soon as possible. Always provide the patient with an acknowledgement that their complaint has been received and is being dealt with. In the GDC’s guidance Principles of Complaints Handling (1), it requires that an acknowledgement is sent to the patient within three working days. If your patient hasn’t already been given a copy of your practice’s complaints procedure, you should also provide them with this when acknowledging the complaint.

Dealing with complaints swiftly can help minimise the likelihood of the complaint escalating, and help to ensure patients feel their concerns are being taken seriously.

2. Communicate clearly

In many cases, clear communication can help to avoid complaints being received in the first place, but it’s equally important to ensure you communicate clearly once a complaint has been made. Avoid using technical terms and large amounts of clinical information if possible, or if it’s necessary to include this information, you should provide an explanation in lay terms. You should also ensure your response is laid out clearly, on headed paper, with events listed sequentially.

3. Address all concerns

There may be a number of issues outlined in a complaint, so ensure you respond to each one individually. It’s possible you may not agree with some or any of them, but it’s important that the patient’s right to complain is respect. Be careful not to disregard a point simply because you don’t agree with it, but equally some very minor points sometimes may be best left unanswered to avoid an overly complex response. In circumstances where the complaint is about more than one clinician, it’s rarely appropriate for you to express an opinion on an act or omission of a colleague, even with their consent. For complaints involving more than one clinician, a joint response could be provided.

4. Don’t let your feelings get the better of you

Responding to a complaint can be emotive and you may feel the patient’s concerns are unjustified. While this may sometimes be the case, it’s often inappropriate to point this out, even if you consider a particular comment totally unjustified. Keep your response as factual as possible, referring to the patient’s records and any correspondence sent or received.

5. Don’t be afraid to say sorry

It’s a common myth that saying sorry is admission of liability. It’s not, and, in many cases, it’s all the patient wants. Along with an apology, you should also consider if it might be appropriate to offer remedial treatment free of charge, a refund of fees or other goodwill gesture. Provided the offer is couched in appropriate terms, it will not in any way prejudice your position should the patient later to decide to escalate their complaint.

6. Learn from mistakes

Of course it would be preferable for things to run smoothly all of the time, but unfortunately this is not always the case. Although it’s never nice to receive a complaint, they can be a useful insight into how patients see you and your practice, and a tool to help you improve your service. Equally, by making necessary changes as a result of a complaint, it shows the patient that you take their concerns seriously and value their feedback. Implement a risk management strategy to help to prevent future problems from occurring. This could include a system for recording comments and suggestions anonymously so issues can be identified before they become full blown complaints.


1. GDC Principles of Complaints Handling

In the year 2010/2011
• Dental Complaints Service received 1,559 complaints from patients about dental care received in  private sector

• This was increase of 24% from 1,180 in 2009/2010.


• It’s easy to speculate that patients feel more inclined to complain about dental treatment


• While this may be the case, in these competitive times, effective complaints handling builds better relationships with patients.

Defence organisations such as the DDU can help you in responding to patient complaints. It is advised all DH&Ts who receive a complaint to contact their defence organisation at the earliest opportunity.


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