Top five reasons for complaints – staff attitude

man making complaintsSarah Ide, Dental Defence Union (DDU) dentolegal adviser, examines the most common factors in dental complaints and how to avoid them.

In past articles we’ve looked at the most common causes of patients making complaints to DDU members.

Alleged rudeness and poor attitude are the fifth most common cause of complaint. And certainly, this is a far less commonly cited reason than treatment issues or fees.

Nonetheless, complaints focusing on staff attitude are often the most challenging to resolve. Usually because both sides often have a completely different view of what happened.

Resolving the issue

The complaints manager’s role in this situation is to take an objective viewpoint and ensure the process is fair to both parties.

Of course, it is much better to avoid a complaint in the first place. Understanding what lies behind these complaints should help you and your colleagues avoid the pitfalls we see at the DDU.

Having reviewed a sample month of complaints from members, the vast majority of files in this category concerned the attitude of the dentist. While a handful mentioned other members of the practice team.

The most common allegations were that the practitioner had appeared uncaring or made a ‘rude comment’. However, complaints tended not to be on these grounds alone.

Most patients were unhappy with their treatment, which the approach of the dental professional only compounded.

Example complaint

The following fictitious example is typical of what can go wrong:

A patient contacted their dental practice after losing several nights’ sleep with toothache. Although he had not attended for nearly two years, the receptionist made an emergency appointment for him that morning.

On examination, the patient’s upper left molar, which already had a large filling, was extremely tender to percussion.

After taking a radiograph, the dentist explained to the patient that to save the tooth the patient would require root canal treatment.

The patient said he wanted the dentist to take out the tooth immediately and implied the dentist wanted to make more money by suggesting he could preserve the tooth.

The dentist explained that he would extract the tooth if that is what the patient wanted. They added the patient might have avoided this predicament if he had followed the preventive advice previously given.

The dentist extracted the tooth. But the patient later complained that the procedure had been excruciatingly painful because he had not been given enough local anaesthetic and the dentist had been uncaring and unsympathetic.

The practice investigation found the dentist had administered an appropriate dose of anaesthetic.

However, the dentist agreed that he could have communicated the preventive advice in a better way.

The practice complaints manager wrote to the patient but he did not respond and did not return to the practice.

Building a relationship

This example illustrates the challenges of communicating with a patient who is already anxious and in pain.

With such challenging consultations, it’s even more important to choose your words carefully and to try to remain calm.

You can reduce the likelihood of a complaint of this nature when the patient and dentist know each other well and have a strong, mutually respectful professional relationship.

However, even a friendly consultation can go awry. So it is important to be mindful of how others might perceive your words or body language.

Advice to avoid complaints

The DDU has the following advice to avoid complaints about attitude/rudeness:

  • Patients may not recall exactly what happened during an appointment. But they will remember how you make them feel. Be aware of your body language and tone of voice. Make eye contact and avoid defensive postures such as folding your arms. Smile to offer reassurance
  • Take particular care with communication when seeing patients who are new to the practice. Make an effort to understand them and their concerns
  • Use the patient’s preferred title and name, and check if you are unsure
  • Listen to the patient talk about their concerns and priorities without interrupting or putting words into their mouth
  • Use the patient’s choice of language. Avoid jargon and technical terms that could make them feel embarrassed or awkward
  • Be tactful. Try to find a time when a patient is likely to be receptive to preventive advice, rather than when they are anxious or upset
  • Think how you would feel in the shoes of the patient or their carer. Treat them as you would like to be treated yourself
  • Be aware the practice might appear very different to patients due to the changes needed during the pandemic. Provide people with information about any changes before they attend
  • Know when to stop. If you feel you are causing the patient distress or confusion during a consultation, it’s better to stop and check they are ok. Consider allowing more time for patients with particular care or communication needs
  • Reflect on consultations and ask colleagues in the dental team to rate your communication skills – is there anything you could improve?

For further advice on complaints handling including a free online learning module for members, see the DDU’s website or download the DDU app.

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