Handling a complaint – the power of an apology

complaint apology Priya Sharma summarises the best way to face a complaint, while making it a learning experience for the entire dental team.

A complaint is never welcome. There is a general fear among dental professionals about receiving complaints.

The stimulus of a complaint is often an erosion in the interpersonal relationship between the patient and dental professional.

What the GDC says

The General Dental Council’s (GDC) Standards for the Dental Team states that:

  • ‘5.1 – make sure that there is an effective complaints procedure readily available for patients to use, and follow that procedure at all times
  • 5.2 – respect a patient’s right to complain
  • 5.3 – give patients who complain a prompt and constructive response.’

Within these are subsections that helpfully advise on the handling of complaints. It is important to be familiar with these to be fully compliant. This will ensure that the patient’s concerns are reasonably and expeditiously dealt with.

Before the beginning

Ensure your dental practice has robust systems in place to avoid dissatisfied patients. Create an environment of transparency. Be rigorous in your treatment planning and consultation phases.

Presenting all treatment options, along with associated risks and benefits, in an unbiased and easy to understand fashion. Pace yourself and allow sufficient time, ensuring both your verbal and non-verbal communication are in line with what you are trying to communicate.

Ascertain patient preferences and expectations, shaping their dental treatment according to these. You should encourage patients to take their treatment plan home with any supplementary information for them to reflect on their choices and the best possible treatment.

In turn, patients will be able to provide their valid informed consent. Deliver all stages of dental treatment in a partnership, and invite patients to engage in their dental treatment as fully as possible. Practising in this manner will create an environment where patients are put first, respected and treated with dignity.

Arrival of a complaint

First and foremost, it is important not to respond defensively, as this will often escalate things. In a nutshell, a formal acceptance, investigation and response to the complaint should be the end of the matter.

The entire dental team must be knowledgeable about the practice’s complaints policies and procedures. Everyone adhering to this will provide consistency and clarity in the process. Follow all timescales and be prompt in replying to the patient. Acknowledge the complaint in writing within three days, including the practice’s complaints policy.

Inform them who their main point of contact will be at the practice. Invite the patient in to discuss their concerns. At this meeting, an open discussion may be carried out. Provide details of how the complaint will be dealt with and timeframe.

Ask the patient their preferred method of contact in receiving updates and any other required information. Never underestimate the power of an apology. Being mindful this is not admitting liability, but regret at the situation as the patient perceives it and the inconvenience it may have caused.


This is where the actual complaint is analysed robustly and fairly by considering the views of all parties.

Ensure you have contemporaneous records of all steps. Provide a response to the patient within 10 working days, and inform them if there will be any delays.


The patient should be provided with a full written response to their complaint, including any refunds or remediation of dental treatment proposed.

This should be an honest reflection of the complaint. Discussing all elements that were considered, conclusions reached, details of the way forward and any changes that have been made at the practice level in general.


This is an opportunity to ensure all matters have been dealt with satisfactorily. In the majority of circumstances, patients are content with the resolution. If, however, they are not, they have a right to escalate the complaint through the NHS or to the Dental Complaints Services and/or the GDC.


It is important to remain calm and professional. A defensive stand against a complaint will provide further encouragement to pursue it. Providing high quality, informed and consistent care throughout will prevent complaints.

You should encourage a dissatisfied patient to voice their concerns. Strive to completely resolve their complaint at practice level. Always remember to have the best interest of the patient at the heart of what you do. Engage and ensure to improve where required.

This article first appeared in Aesthetic Dentistry Today magazine. You can read the latest issue here.

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