Handling patient complaints: negative to positive outcomes
This chapter aims to emphasise the rights of patients to complain and the ways in which complaints should be managed and viewed as positives rather than negatives.
In addition to considering the steps to be taken in responding to complaints, this chapter is intended to give the dental team a positive approach to the successful management of concerns, criticisms and complaints.
In addition to it being unrealistic to expect to please all patients all of the time, it is important for members of the dental team to recognise, individually and collectively, that no one is perfect. As a consequence, everyone will, from time to time, be the subject of a complaint, or at least some level of criticism, irrespective of how hard individuals and the team try to behave and perform in an ideal manner. Complaints and criticisms should not therefore be treated defensively, but as events, unwelcome as they may be, as a stimulus to review, audit and, where appropriate, take action to modify behaviours, procedures and techniques. Whilst recognising that the occasional complaint can be vexatious, caution must be exercised in dismissing any complaint, irrespective how trivial. Not to accept some criticism, possibly in the form of a complaint, could be considered foolhardy.
It might not be immediately understood, but complaints should be looked upon as an opportunity to correct, or possibly just improve matters, with positive outcomes. It is important to capitalise on these opportunities, enhance the services provided to patients and, as a consequence, reduce the risk of similar complaints in the future.
If a patient is unhappy with the service or treatment they receive, it is to be hoped that they make their feelings known, and the dental team has the opportunity to address the situation. The alternative is that patient severs their link with the practice, and may make it their business to tell friends and family, if not various agencies, about their loss of trust and confidence in the service provided by the dental team. Under such circumstances, resolving matters can become exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, and the dental team tends to be faced with damage limitation rather than the prospect of any positive outcomes.
Professional responsibility requires you to answer complaints satisfactorily, put matters right, and use the information provided to improve your service. With this in mind, the dental team should have a complaints procedure in place that the team is familiar with and trained to deliver, as and when the need arises. As recommended by various professional organisations, nationally and internationally, the initial management of any complaint should involve listening to the complainant, recording the complaint, acknowledging any failings and limitations which have occurred and seeking ways to resolve the issue locally at the practice level, thereby avoiding the need for a formal, typically stressful investigation by a third party. Very often resolution can be achieved by making an apology and agreeing arrangements to put things right. Some complaints can, however, be difficult to resolve. Such difficulties tend to arise when the patient has experienced pain, distress or inconvenience for which they expect compensation, or believe reflects negligence, if not incompetence in the way they have been treated. Complaints of such a serious nature are best dealt with by third parties. One of the skills in the successful management of complaints is knowing when to seek help and support, albeit that it escalates the matter to involve external agencies.
When making a complaint, a patient usually wants to know a number of things.
What has happened?
Why it happened?