Proactive response to patient complaints

dental patient complaintsAlan Frame explains why dental practices are experiencing an increase in patient complaints and how to deal with them.

A recent survey conducted by the BMA found that more than half of GPs questioned have experienced verbal abuse in the past month. While over two-thirds witnessed violence or verbal abuse against colleagues.

At MDDUS we have also noted an increase in requests for advice and support from practices seeking assistance in managing this serious issue.

Such incidents seem to be increasing. And the ongoing Covid-related restrictions is only going to exacerbate the situation. With access to treatment services being a common flashpoint.

Unfortunately it is the ‘front of house’ reception team that seems to take the brunt of this. And the rest of the team needs to take great care to support these team members.

Dental practices have experienced similar issues. A likely consequence of this activity is a significant rise in related patient complaints. To which practices will then have to divert additional time and resources in investigating and responding.

This is particularly relevant now as public goodwill with Covid-19 measures wears thin.

Negative comments

It’s clear that there is much angst and frustration among the general public at present.

We can now see further evidence of an increasing public backlash against healthcare services through the many negative comments online. And in particular on local social media community forums and pages. As well as other popular national chat groups.

Some of these posts are vitriolic in nature. This is both unacceptable and distressing for the clinicians and practice staff in question.

However, there are also comments that you could certainly class as a genuine concern or complaint about the service in question.

Common themes in medical practice centre around being unable to get a face-to-face appointment, or even get through on the phone to a local practice.

In dental practice, backlogs lead to an increase in concerns related to access to ‘routine’ care and perceived delays in treatment.

Dental practices are encouraged to prioritise urgent or emergency care. This therefore seems to cause delays for patients without a need for urgent care, but a desire to maintain their oral health. These delays are a source of frustration to those longstanding patients of the practice.

Examples include:

  • I’ve not been able to get a routine dental check-up for ages. Whose fault is it when I have decay?
  • My tooth has broken because of the delay in finishing root canal treatment. The practice is never open and when they are, they see hardly any patients.

Keeping an eye on social media posts

Many practices now have their own social media presence through platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter. This can make it easier to monitor and understand what is happening in the communities they serve.

However, some practices do not appear to monitor social media channels. And by implication they are not aware of some of the important issues that patients are raising via local online community forums.

There is always an element of ‘self-policing’ that takes place within these public groups. Other patients will weigh in with more supportive comments or offer suggestions as to why something is happening or has gone wrong.

However, what is often missing are source-led facts and practices taking the opportunity to be more proactive in their communication with the wider community: getting accurate, factual and helpful information out there before an issue escalates through the spread of misinformation and rumour.

For example, how many patients really understand the additional precautions currently in place in dental practice, such as ventilation for AGP, the impact of PPE on face to face communications and fallow time?

Countering misinformation

There are valid concerns that engaging with individuals on these types of open online forums may only risk escalating an issue. Or it may create more problems for the practice to deal with.

However, practices can post helpful and accurate information in a neutral manner. Perhaps point patients to the existing practice complaints procedure, without getting into an online argument with individuals. This could mitigate risk to the practice’s local reputation. As well as address potential issues before they escalate.

Ensure that when responding to criticism online you restrict your comments to general service matters. Avoid addressing specific patient complaints or other issues in order to maintain confidentiality (see further GDC guidance below).

Even simply confirming that a person is a patient of the practice in a response would amount to a breach of confidentiality, for example.

Action points

  • Practices should consider monitoring local community public social media forums. Be prepared to counter misinformation with factual evidence and helpful advice
  • Consider proactive ways to reach the public to communicate important service information and arrangements during the ongoing pandemic.

Further guidance

Beneficial training courses:

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