Top tips for preventing a patient complaint from getting out of control

According to the latest figures 13,493 dental patients felt the need to complain in writing to NHS England*. While the vast majority of these complaints relate to issues with clinical treatment (38.9 per cent) and 11.9 per cent are about treatment charges, a surprising number are due to communication – or lack of it.

Just over 12 per cent of all complaints are about poor communication – making it the second most common reason patients write to NHS England. It’s also, more often than not, a complaint that could have been easily avoided.

Without question the secret to nip these complaints in the bud is through good communication. We share our expert top tips to prevent a patient complaint from escalating.

Top tip: Listen first…talk second

Sometimes patients just want to have their concerns listened to. So, let them. Try not to interrupt or talk over them and give them the time they need to address their issues with you.

After all, not all patients want or feel the need to go through a formal complaint procedure. This conversation may be all that’s needed to clarify, comfort or reassure them.

It’s sometimes also worth taking the patient to a private room so they can feel comfortable talking about potentially personal details – and also, for your own benefit, so you don’t have an audience of patients listening in.

By listening you’ll be able to understand their perspective and perhaps be able to quash the issue there and then.

Top tip:  It’s all Greek to me!

Being clear is vital to enable good patient communication. But clarity rarely comes by using dental jargon, complex medical terms and acronyms.

Talking in terms only understandable to those in the dental industry could inflame a complaint and leave a patient frustrated.  

Top tip: Sorry shouldn’t be the hardest word

If an apology is needed it should be given – and immediately. Failure to apologise when it’s due can appear to a patient that you’re not treating them fairly or that you don’t respect them. Worse still, they could think that you’re trying to cover up a mistake or problem.  

It’s also important to note that not all complaints deserve an apology. Occasionally, all that’s needed is to allow the patient to vent their concerns and demonstrate how you’re going to address them.

Top tip: Body talk

Good patient communication isn’t just about what you say and how you say it, it’s also your non-verbal response. In fact, body language, especially in a difficult or negative situation, can be more important than spoken words.

Body language do’s and don’ts:

  • Do maintain eye contact
  • Do give the patient your full attention
  • Do maintain an upright and open posture
  • Do be friendly and approachable
  • Don’t cross your arms or appear defensive
  • Don’t point or clench your fists
  • Don’t look bored or angry
  • Don’t appear distracted
  • Don’t frown or roll your eyes

Top tip: Patient feedback isn’t always a complaint – so don’t treat it as such  

We’ve all found ourselves at one point or another in a situation when we’ve had a customer experience that didn’t quite live up to our expectations. Often, we say nothing and take our custom elsewhere. Or, alternatively, we provide feedback, so improvements can be made.

And that’s no different to how patients feel about their dental practice experience. Patients should feel that their feedback is listened to, acknowledged and acted upon. If they don’t have a good experience in practice and their feedback is perceived as being ignored or discounted, the complaint has the potential to snowball.

Top tip: Avoid verbal diarrhoea 

Often in a difficult situation we panic and ramble. Instead, before you speak, collect your thoughts so you’re delivering a clear response. This avoids any confusion and ensures the patient leaves the practice reassured and well-informed.

Top tip: Don’t be all talk and no action

Action may not be technically ‘good communication’, but without follow through on a complaint you’re letting the patient down and undoing all your hard work. Good communication and Complaints handling are key skills every dental practice team needs.   

To brush up on your communication skills and help manage a patient complaint take part in Patient Communication training (held in practice) and Complaints Handling online webinars delivered by Dr Farzeela Merali-Rupani, Head of Clinical at DD and also a Clinical Case Examiner and Investigating Committee member for the General Dental Council.