Dentists told, brush up on communication skills

The Dental Defence Union is advising dental professionals to brush up their
 communication skills to help avoid complaints.

Responding to news from the
Dental Complaints Service (DCS) that complaints about private dental treatment rose
 by 17% in the year to April 2012, the Dental Defence Union (DDU) says that in its
 experience, many complaints involve communication problems of one sort or 

The DCS reports that it received more than 1,800 complaints about private treatment
 between May 2011 and April 2012. The most frequent complaints by patients were:

• Not being made aware of the prognosis of treatment or alternative treatment options

• That the information they were given was unclear and being ignored when they raised concerns.1

• The report also found that the most common complaints were about fillings, root
canals, crowns and dentures, with many cases resulting in an apology, a refund
or offer of remedial treatment.

LeoBriggs, DDU dento-legal adviser, said: ‘The findings from the DCS report echo our own experience about the importance of
clear communication, both in terms of helping to avoid complaints arising in
the first place and when addressing and resolving concerns to patients’

‘We do not believe the rising number of complaints indicates any decline in dental
standards. More likely it is due to people’s greater expectations of what can
be achieved by dental treatment and being more willing to complain when things
do not go to plan.

‘There is much food for thought in the report however, particularly about the reasons patients complain. In the DDU’s experience, problems with
communication are often at the heart of complaints. This can range from the
perceived attitude of the dental professional or other members of the team
through to confusion about the basis on which the treatment was provided and
the fees charged.  

He added: ‘It is important to listen to patients’ concerns, share information with them in a way they can understand
and give them a chance to ask questions. Patients should be warned about the
risks of any procedure and be told about any alternative treatments,
particularly if they are having cosmetic treatment. It is vital to be honest
and open with patients when things have gone wrong and to apologise.”

Top tips 

• Listen carefully to patients – make eye contact and nod or say ‘I understand’ occasionally so
patient know you are listening to them

• Try not to interrupt

• Remember that actions speak louder than words – look out for signs that a patient might be anxious
 about treatment and keep your body language open when dealing with patients who
are unhappy about treatment. For example, avoid folding your arms

• Avoid jargon – try not to use technical terms and large amounts of clinical information when 
explaining treatment options

• Be courteous – even if it is clear that a patient is unhappy with an aspect of their treatment, be 
polite and professional and try not to act defensively

• Respond quickly – dealing with a problem swiftly can help to minimise the likelihood of a complaint
escalating and can help to ensure that patients feel their concerns are being 
taken seriously

• Be ready to apologise if things have gone wrong – consider offering remedial treatment free of
 charge, a refund of fees or other goodwill gesture. This can often help to
 resolve a complaint

• Learn from mistakes – consider putting in place a system for recording comments and suggestions
 anonymously so that issues can be identified before they become



1. Dental Complaints Service Annual Review 2011-12, 2 October 2012,


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