How to handle complaints

earfuckDonna Hickey explains how practices can deal with complaints effectively, while adhering to the GDC and the CQC principles.

Having an effective complaints procedure in place helps dental professionals deal with unhappy patients courteously and promptly, providing the patient with a clear time frame of what to expect, while also giving the practice an opportunity to learn and improve from past mistakes.

Outcome 17 of the Care Quality Commission’s (CQC’s) Essential Standards of Quality and Safety, and regulation 19 of the Health and Social Care Act set out the principles for complaint handling for dental practices.

The General Dental Council (GDC) updated its Standards for the Dental Team in 2013, and the updated document lays out nine principles that registered dental professionals must adhere to at all times. By stringently following the GDC’s nine principles, registrants will greatly reduce the potential for complaints.

The nine principles

  1. Put patients’ interests first
  2. Communicate effectively with patients
  3. Obtain valid consent
  4. Maintain and protect patients’ information
  5. Have a clear and effective complaints procedure
  6. Work with colleagues in a way that is in patients’ best interests
  7. Maintain, develop and work within your professional knowledge and skills
  8. Raise concerns if patients are at risk
  9. Make sure your personal behaviour maintains patients’ confidence in you and the dental profession.

Adherence to these principles is not only important because they are regulations, but also because doing so can ensure the provision of high quality treatment and care.

Creating a complaints procedure

A ‘clear and effective complaints procedure’ should outline a number of key points, starting with the time frames involved with making a complaint and what the individual can expect.

From the outset, any complaint should be acknowledged within two days, whether that’s by telephone, email or letter. The practice should then reply to the patient in writing with a formal response within seven to 10 days. This response should detail a named person that the patient can deal with going forwards.

Practices need to designate a dedicated staff member who will be the point of contact for any patient who has made a complaint. Let’s say the lead for handling complaints is the practice manager. Even if the complaint is clinical in nature, the practice manager will still retain overall responsibility for managing and handling it. In cases such as this, the practice manager should acknowledge the complaint and still respond directly with the dentist’s clinical response, to ensure that this is produced in a format that the patient can easily understand, and to avoid any further confusion or breakdown in communication.

Patients should be able to easily see and read through their practice’s complaints procedure, as this is a legal requirement for both NHS and private practices.

Some practices do not display a complaints procedure for fear that it gives patients the impression that they receive a lot of complaints. A better approach would be to use the opportunity to demonstrate to patients that they will be listened to and supported throughout their journey within the practice.

Log everything

Keeping thorough records of complaints is vital to meet CQC regulations, so every practice should create a ‘complaints tracker’ or ‘feedback tracker’. This can be a spreadsheet on a computer or a manual logbook. The tracker should log:

  • Who made the complaint
  • The date it was received
  • The nature of the complaint and, if relevant, the person against which the complaint has been made
  • Internal action to investigate the complaint
  • The date the response was sent
  • Whether the case was resolved or closed
  • Minutes of any meetings
  • Improvements made as a result.

Once a case has been resolved, it is very important to record the changes or improvements that have been made to mitigate against the same situation occurring again. The CQC will be looking for evidence of learning outcomes to determine what the practice staff have learnt as a result.

What is crucial is to ensure that the investigation process is thorough and that there is a documented audit trail of the steps taken to reach the decision. At all times, staff must consider and adhere to the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that there is no discrimination against anyone that is wishing to, or is in the process of, making a complaint.

Share feedback

In addition to all this, it is imperative for practices to demonstrate that they encourage and support a culture of openness. There should be regular meetings to discuss feedback that allow staff to contribute ideas on how to improve.

Quite often, a patient complaint will also include positive remarks, so it is just as important to share these comments with the practice team so that they don’t just hear about the negatives.

Find training

All staff require training in the area of complaints handling and should be able to produce documents that evidence that training.

Excellent free training resources are the GDC’s nine principles and the GDC’s Standards for the Dental Team. Networking sites, such as the Healthcare Professionals Network (HPN), provide valuable support and information. NHS Choices also has a lot of information for both NHS and private practices. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman offers the Principles of Good Complaint Handling, which lists a checklist of good complaint handling.

So, by using free resources from the CQC, GDC, NHS Choices and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, dental practices can easily create a solid complaints procedure and train staff in how to handle complaints effectively.

For more information call DBG on 01606 861 950, or visit

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