How to handle patient complaints with care whilst protecting yourself

How to handle patient complaints with care whilst protecting yourselfDensura take us through the best way to handle patient complaints – while protecting your practice and team at the same time.

How you handle complaints can be the difference between a stressful life and potential damage to your practice or a great outcome and an enhanced reputation. Here, we set out a few tips to ensure the latter:

Handling a complaint: the basics

Patient complaints occur for many reasons – some valid but some born out of misunderstandings or issues with meeting the cost of treatment. Whatever the nature of the complaints, how you approach a complaint can make all the difference:

Be calm: You may not agree with what is said. A patient may be abrupt or rude, but you should maintain a calm and detached approach.

Say you are sorry: Often misunderstood, showing simple empathy does not mean admitting liability. ‘I am sorry this has happened to you, let me take a look’ or ‘I’m sorry you feel this way, let’s go over what has happened and see what we can do.’

Sorry can often defuse a tense situation, allowing you to engage with the patient. It can also help you to assess the complaint in a dispassionate way.

Make notes: Make sure you accurately record any conversations and keep these notes on the patient file. If it’s not written down it didn’t happen!

Advise your indemnifier: Here, at Densura, we are here to help. You will speak with one of our practising dentists that make up our team of ten dentolegal advisers. This discussion will not affect your premium. Instead, it will take the stress away – you will feel supported and cared for.

Practice owners: make sure your dentists have adequate indemnity insurance

Stay updated

While many claims are notified within four years of the treatment, we do see claims coming in over a much longer period. Either this or the alleged negligent period of treatment may span a long time. At Densura, we only provide occurrence indemnity. This means that we will cover any valid claim for treatment carried out while insured with us, regardless of the claim date.

Please ensure all dental practitioners – regardless of the capacity in which they work – have in place appropriate indemnity cover with a dental defence organisation or insurer (Densura recommend a minimum of a £10m limit and no policy excess).

The indemnity position of each dental practitioner should be checked annually. Their indemnity certificate must be kept on file and maintained for ten years.

If you have concerns about the quality of any of your dentists’ work, it is worth trying to keep updated contact details or track their place of employment so that they can be contacted if an issue arises.

What do to when you receive patient complaints

Complaints can arrive in many forms. Whether it’s a written or verbal complaint, a request for records from solicitors, a letter of notification, a letter of claim or notification of legal proceedings.

In every instance, you should immediately identify the dental practitioners involved in the patient’s treatment. Provide the relevant details to the patient or the patient’s solicitors. Obtain the patient’s or their solicitor’s authority to disclose a copy of their correspondence to the relevant dental practitioner/s, as well as a copy of the patient’s dental records.

As soon as the patient’s authority as above is received, forward the relevant correspondence to the dental practitioner/s. Request that they notify the matter to their medical defence organisation or insurer.

Make sure you get written confirmation that they have notified their MDO/insurer. Track the progress of any complaints to ensure they are being handled correctly and effectively. It may be worth reviewing your associate agreements in this respect.

Vicarious liability

In the event a claim is intimated against the practice based on vicarious liability and or non-delegable duty, the practice must also immediately notify its indemnifier of the claim. In the event of any uncertainty, always err on the side of caution and call your indemnifier.

From our experience, the longer it takes to direct the claimant’s solicitor to the dentist responsible, the less likely they will remove the practice from the claim and increases the chances of incurring costs.

What to do if you cannot trace the dentist(s) who provided the treatment?

You should immediately notify your indemnifier if a dental practitioner involved in the patient’s treatment or a dentist named as a defendant in any legal proceedings is missing.
Similarly, notify them if someone becomes uncontactable or untraceable.

This situation is your greatest exposure to incurring costs but an area where your indemnifier can help you. We have had much success tracking down dentists and getting them to notify their previous indemnifiers.

At Densura, this process becomes even easier if we are the insurer of a dentist that has left the practice. This is because will start defending the claim on behalf of our insured even if we cannot locate them.

What happens if the claimant still wants to pursue me as a practice owner, not the dentist who provided the treatment?

Sometimes the patient or, more likely, the law firm acting for the patient is not interested in involving the treating dentist or dentists. They prefer to go after the practice owner. While frustrating, the patient has this right, and recent case law supports them.

If your corporate or practice owner cover is with Densura and the treating dentist is with Densura then you need not worry. We will deal with the claim on your behalf. But any payments or costs will go against the dentist’s policy.

Some indemnity organisations will refuse to engage unless the claim is against their dentist. If the patient or their lawyer refuses to join the treating dentist, you may have to deal with the claim and then subrogate against the dentist. Here, you must communicate with the dentist and their indemnifier and inform them of your intentions and actions. The indemnifier should agree to work with you and your insurer.

Vicarious liability cover should be included as standard.

Is there anything else I need to know about vicarious liability?

At Densura, we have produced definitive guides around vicarious liability and non-delegable duty of care. Please contact us for further information.

We work closely with FTA Law. As part of our service, they can advise on your associate contracts to address vicarious liability and ensure the dentist has a contractual responsibility to engage their indemnifier where a claim is incorrectly brought against the practice rather than the dentist. Get in touch with us for further details.

Why should the dental practitioner work with the practice owner before they are named in a claim?

Where a claim is brought against the practice based on vicarious liability and or non-delegable duty but involves treatment you provided to the patient, it is crucial that you cooperate with the practice at all times. Promptly notify your medical defence organisation or insurer of the claim. Refusing to work with the practice will not spare you from getting dragged into a claim. But it will mean that you have no control of the matter.

Densura understands the dynamics here. We recommend placing the practice cover and the dentists’ cover with the same insurer. In the event of a claim against the practice, it means a joined-up response which reduces costs and stress.

Keeping everyone updated – communication is key

Once you have taken the above steps, write to the patient or their solicitors to update them. At the pre-action stage and where a claim is intimated against the practice based on vicarious liability and or non-delegable duty, the patient and or the patient’s solicitors should be invited to defer the claim to the individual Dental Practitioners.

If you are unsure what wording to use, seek assistance from the practice’s medical defence organisation or insurer. Your indemnifier should assist you with every step and help you to draft any letters.

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