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Complaints in dentistry

in Risk Management

Complaints in dentistry

Shandy qualified from Barts and the London 2010, she has since worked in various general practices, and is currently at a practice participating in the pilot scheme.

Shandy say's "I am enthusiastic about what the future of dentistry holds and the continuous evolving to meet the current needs of patients and excited to be at the practice that promotes prevention in the direction the Department of Health intends."


"I'm also passionate about teaching and hoping to embark on that journey in the next academic year returning to the university that trained me and further fuel my academic passion into a postgraduate qualification in restorative dentistry."

Receiving your first complaint is the most demoralising and upsetting experience and this can really affect a young dentist so early in their career.

I found it very saddening, to have received my first complaint. The emotions you experience when reading the letter the patient has written about you or the treatment provided can undoubtedly be demoralising and make you initially question yourself and your clinical judgment and ability. By effectively dealing with the complaint early can prevent escalation, avoid lawyers and regulatory body involvement, rebuild a stronger relationship with the patient and use the complaint as a learning curve, improving the quality of the service. I have written this article explaining what to do if you receive a complaint and steps you can take to minimise one.

What to do next

Firstly you need to contact the company providing your indemnity and send a letter of acknowledgment to the patient within three days of receiving their letter of complaint. The dentist or your indemnity representative responds to the patient within 10 days but if the circumstances require longer the patient should be notified with updates every 10 days till the matter is resolved.

Acknowledgement Letter

Start by acknowledging the patients complaint. E.g. thank you for your letter written on {Insert Date} Thank you for taking the time to write to the practice regarding {patient X} recent dental care. I am very sorry to learn you have some concerns regarding the treatment I provided for {patient X} and I appreciate how upsetting it must have been for you to put this in writing. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to you personally. I will look into this matter and will aim to respond in 10 working days either with a suitable resolution or update on its progress.

Steps to take to minimise complaints

Adequate Staff Training

Appropriate training to all members of staff should be delivered; this is usually a shortcoming in many practices. Most dissatisfied patients will call the practice initially prior to putting it in writing and in the majority of cases it is a receptionist that they deal with first. Therefore it is vital that your reception staff are trained to deal, assist or direct the patient complaint to the appropriate member of staff. Good complaints handling and formal training in communication is essential in any practice to manage and resolve complaints early before they escalate involving regulatory bodies or lawyers.

Identifying Complaints

It is critical to identify complaints early and avoid the stress in the long run by delaying resolutions.

• Identify dissatisfied patients body language and tone of voice.

• Use of Comment card

• Use of Patient surveys


To remember these issues we will use the acronym 'REACH' to describe the five key components required in order to successfully respond to a complaint.

• Recognition

• Empathy

• Action

• Compensation

• Honesty

Accepting Complaints

Accepting complaints and providing the patient with a response or acknowledgement of their complaint. This should be done as soon as possible and if any delay is envisaged then the patient should be notified and kept updated with any progress. Delays in responding without notifying the patient can in turn fuel the response.


Ensure all parties involved are contacted and a thorough investigation is carried out to make sure all sides of the story are investigated. Get the facts straight and think the response through. Do not be hasty.

Resolving the dissatisfaction from a patient complaint

Understandably, many people become defensive when they receive a complaint, particularly if they regard it as unreasonable, unfair or without foundation.

Defensiveness can be counterproductive to good complaint handling and at worst it can result in the dentist's response sounding more like a counterattack than an explanation. When a complaint is received, it is important to consider for a moment the desired outcome, i.e. do you want to retain the patient, to agree to differ or try to resolve the patient's dissatisfaction?

Each choice demands a different response. One common error that often results in a counterclaim is the aggressive pursuit of a debt when a patient has complained about the quality of treatment provided.

Try to establish an approach to patient care that encourages feedback about the patient's perception of the service and the quality of care received.


Responding sympathetically to a complaint and following it up are the final tips to managing and minimising the complaints.

For future risk management it is helpful to consider:

a) How the complaint arose.

b) What steps could have been taken to avoid the complaint in the first place?

c) Was the complaint handled effectively?

d) Did the practice/patient achieve the desired outcome?

e) Do we need to make any changes to our procedures or protocols for the future?

It is important to remember that complaints alert you to areas of service delivery that, if not addressed, could lead to a more serious complaint in the future. People who complain often consider it a rewarding outcome if they feel that they have made a difference that might benefit other patients.

Finally, don't be put off by complaints but use it as a learning curve and analyse where it went wrong and how could this can be avoided. Mistakes do occur in our profession and it's about learning from them and minimising occurrence. All complaints can teach us something.

Dr Shandy Mohanan BDS


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