"MISTAKES are going to happen. Acknowledge them. Rectify them. Learn from them. Move on." These words spoken by the fictitious president of the USA, Josiah Bartlett, in The West Wing can equally be applied to complaints.
SHOW me a business that says it has no complaints from their customers and I’ll show a business that isn’t listening. Once upon a time patients, like all customers, would just vote with their feet, sharing their complaints with their friends and family to undo your carefully made reputation. Now social media and the power of the internet ensure that even the silent ones have a voice. So we need to flip our approach to complaints. Instead of being feared and avoided, negative feedback should be sought out and valued. To do that we need to ensure that we listen and communicate with great care and skill. But first how can we minimise negative experiences?
A drop of prevention is better than a bucketful of cure. Before any treatment, make sure that the patient’s expectations are realistic. Do they truly understand what is involved? Do you run the risk of over promising something that is then under-delivered in the patient’s eyes? Remember that words of caution said before a procedure are a warning, but the same words said afterwards are an excuse.
During the treatment did you keep the patient informed of the process? Did you tell them what was going to be happening next? If something happens that might make things take longer did you explain what, why and how long? Did you tell them what to expect over the next few days? Have you had to change the treatment planned?
After treatment, did you follow-up on anything where the patient might be expected to have pain or swelling? A brief, sympathetic call can be better than a whole battery of analgesics. The telephone is still one of the greatest tools. Can you and your team recognise negative feelings from patients? Do you have processes in place to deal appropriately with any negative feedback? Don’t let a telephone call that could prove to be a great learning experience for all escalate into a full-blown complaint. People want someone to listen to them. The team member must be sympathetic, understand what may have gone wrong with the patient’s experience and be in a position to give time to their concerns. If necessary discuss the matter and return the call. Make sure that you understand fully what the concerns are and tell the patient what you will do to put things right and then do it.
Always say sorry, even if you are absolutely sure that your treatment, advice or procedure has been as good as it could be. Start any conversation with the words: "I am sorry to hear that" – and mean it.
Your efforts may prove unsuccessful and the patient may still want to make a formal complaint. Ensure that your procedures comply with current guidelines and the patient understands how to go about voicing their concerns. Be on the patient’s side. Avoid anything that could be interpreted as adversarial.
Deal with things quickly; if you are able then arrange to meet the patient face to face. Don’t drag your heels in the hope that it will go away. Don’t take a complaint personally – it’s easy to feel angry or let down by the patient for whom you have done your best.
When you do meet the patient ensure that you keep your composure, know the complaint procedures, take notes, be sympathetic and apologise for the fact that patient has needed to complain. Tell the patient the time frame that they can expect action from you and stick to it.
Investigate and take action and keep the patient informed at every stage of the process. Communicate what you have learned. This might include an admission that things were not quite as they should have been, followed by an explanation of the actions that you have taken to ensure that any error or slip in service standards will not be repeated. Be honest and transparent.
If the complaint cannot be dealt with satisfactorily in-house or the patient is requesting compensation then contact MDDUS immediately. They are the experts and will be used to handling on a daily basis the problems that happen for you once in a blue moon.
Alun K Rees BDS is The Dental Business Coach and an experienced dental practice owner who changed career and now works as a coach, consultant, troubleshooter, analyst, speaker, writer and broadcaster. www.dentalbusinesscoach.co.uk
MDDUS members can also check out our new Dental complaints handling interactive module