Patient complaints: prevention and cure in a digital age

The internet has fundamentally changed the way we do business – and dentistry is no exception. Hazel Adams explains what this means for your relationship with patients

With digital communication comes an increase in access to information, and with this comes knowledge – and, as we all know, knowledge is power.

This digital age, and all the associated processes and technologies, has also raised expectations in a world that is now more consumer-driven than ever.

As a result, the worldwide web has proved to be an invaluable resource for dental patients – albeit not always reliable. However, sourced from ‘safe’ places online, it means they have a better understanding of what is involved regarding treatments, as well as a heightened expectation of their results.

Patients want to be treated with empathy as well as empowered to make informed choices based on the clear information they are given in an honest and open way. They also have the right to expect high-quality care delivered in a safe, clinical environment.

In essence, any experience falling short of this and patients will inevitably complain.

A good dental practice team will provide patients with explanations in layman’s terms; information that will also include the pros and cons of going ahead with any given procedure.

A thorough consultation will also be conducted before any treatment commences.

So, what are the five most common areas for patient complaints? In my experience, they can be summed up as follows:

  1. Dissatisfaction about treatment
  2. Failed or delayed diagnosis – most often dental decay; however, mouth cancer is also a concer
  3. Communication – lack of information or treatment details not conveyed in layman’s terms
  4. Rudeness – not responding fully to questions asked or queries raised, interrupting, talking over patients or, at worse, being verbally abusive
  5. Fees/charges – not confirmed or patient is not updated if further costs are incurred once treatment has commenced.

Prevention is always better than cure

In order to minimise the risk of complaint, the careful management of patient expectations is vital – from their first encounter, either in the practice or online, to the reception desk and the surgery chair. As such, the prevention of any complaints ideally starts even before treatment begins.

Any dental practice website should be General Dental Council compliant, and dental professionals must provide fair, factual, and balanced information to patients in regards to the services being offered to them.

This information should be written in such a way that instils patients’ trust and prevents them feeling that they are being taken advantage of due to their lack of knowledge.

False advertising can mean you fail to meet expectations and a complaint is subsequently generated from this.

Once in the chair, it is important to clarify what the patient wants and whether this is achievable. Next, there needs to be a discussion about treatment options and, so that the patient can make an informed choice, the explanation should be in layman’s terms, avoiding technical jargon.

In order to ensure the patient is fully aware of what treatment is going to take place, the team needs to obtain a signed treatment plan before starting. This should include the proposed treatment, costs involved, and any guarantees.

If there are to be any additional costs once the treatment has started, this should be communicated to the patient and an updated treatment plan signed.

Dental teams also need to be mindful of their own limitations, ensuring they are confident in what they can deliver and are all working within their scope of practice.

On occasion, I have known some team members to comment: ‘I knew that there were going to be problems’ or ‘I knew he/she would be trouble’, yet they still went ahead, carried out treatment, expectations were not met and a complaint resulted from this. Be honest and refer onwards if necessary.

In-house complaints procedure

You cannot always prevent a complaint from being raised. However, what is important is how you deal with it. Ensuring that there is an in-house complaints handling procedure of which patients are aware is helpful, too.

In the event of any complaint, apologise, show empathy, and respond in a timely manner. If a complaint is handled in the correct way, it is still possible to retain a disgruntled patient at your practice. However, anything less than this may see it escalating beyond your control – and beyond the four walls of the practice.

Realistically, and despite all best efforts, dental teams cannot always prevent complaints arising. However, teams do need to be equipped with both the skills and resources to be able to resolve them when they do.

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