I&I Interview: Dr Ahmad Nounu
Dr Ahmad Nounu is the owner of two private practices, Chair of the BDA Western Counties branch and creator of the 90 Day Dental Series on YouTube.
Here, I talk to him about how to prevent and manage patient complaints, how to balance professionalism and personality on social media, and the potential for complaints arising from posts on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram…
When you were a student, was there a fear of receiving and dealing with complaints once you began working?
There was a slight fear of complaints, but I think there has been a big shift over the past 10 years, and especially the last five years.
When I graduated 11 years ago, there was more a feeling of excitement and not as much of a fear factor as there is now.
The rise of social media has played a big role in that. People can now access a lot more information, and not necessarily the right information, more easily and quickly than they could in the past. This can fuel not just the people making complaints but also the fear of receiving one.
Society has also become more litigious in general, not just in dentistry. Sometimes it is justified to make a complaint, but there has also been a rise in blame culture over the past decade.
In the past when things went wrong, if all the factors are considered and you’ve ticked all the boxes and tried your best, people used to be more accepting that ‘these things sometimes happen’.
Unfortunately now there is more of a blame and compensation culture that is sadly becoming ingrained across all areas of society.
How have you dealt with managing complaints since you graduated?
It’s all about learning how to manage the situation, and that comes with experience and time.
No one is prepared for receiving their first complaint, it is always a total shock to the system. You will beat yourself up and blame yourself and keep yourself awake at night – you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t.
But the more life experience you gain and the more you practise dentistry, the more you learn how to deal with these kinds of things.
When you do get a complaint it’s important to take some time to process it and not have a knee jerk reaction. Every practice has a procedure for dealing with complaints, which includes the correct way to respond, when to involve your indemnifier, etc., and it’s important to follow that protocol.
It’s also important to get into the habit of dealing with your complaints personally – the personal touch can make a huge difference. Patients often appreciate the fact that you’re dealing with it directly.
Understanding what made the patient complain in the first place is also key. If a patient sees that you genuinely care about what the issue is and are trying to find a way to make them happy, that will go a long way to resolving the complaint and de-escalating the situation.
What’s your advice for how best to prevent a complaint?
The biggest factor is trying to make the way you work as safe as possible. And the way you do that is by being as thorough as you can.
Everything you learned at dental school was so that you could be a safe and effective dentist. Once you get out in the wider world, don’t forget all of those things you learned.
To be safe and effective, you might sometimes need to spend more time talking to patients, for example, if they’re apprehensive or don’t understand certain procedures. There’s no point continuing, until you’re sure the patient understands the treatment and is happy to go ahead.
Make sure your notes are written in enough detail so that you, or anyone else, could come back at any time and pick up that treatment, or at least understand what you’ve written.
You also need to make sure patients are fully aware of what you’re doing and make sure you’re reviewing your work on a regular basis.
Stay in one practice for a decent length of time, so that you get to see the same patients year after year. That longevity helps you to understand the experiences you’re having and develop your skills, not just clinically but also in terms of building relationships with patients. You’ll also start to recognise the signs for certain issues before they pop up.
As you mentioned earlier, social media has been steadily rising over the past decade. How can dentists strike the right balance between being professional on social media, while also keeping it fun?
The advent of social media has been amazing because it’s opened up an array of information and exposure that dental schools haven’t been able to keep up with, because they’ve not incorporated any of that into the learning environment yet.
I’m a huge social media user, both professionally and personally. It’s a fantastic marketing tool for building your profile, but drawing the line between the personal and professional on social media is something a lot of dentists struggle with.
It’s a good idea to have a plan for how you’re going to use social media and how you want to position yourself i.e. do you want to be attracting prospective students, building as big a following as possible or educating patients?
Once you know that you can know how to present yourself on social media and how much you want to mix the personal and professional.
For example, if you want to gain traction in the dental community because you want to move into the education sector in the future, then you probably want to stick mainly to posting quality content and case studies etc., that will attract fellow dentists and keeping the personal stuff to a minimum.
If you just want to build as big a following as possible, you might have more of a spread of professional and personal.
Even if you’re mainly trying to build a following solely of prospective patients, showing your personal side is always good to include at some level, as it shows the human side of dentistry. But you also want to be thinking about what your patients are interested in and what would benefit them, e.g. posting advice on oral health and staying well.
One other key thing to remember when it comes to social media is that while it can be very inspiring and motivating to see a lot of modern, complicated, brilliant treatments being shown off, don’t try to run before you can walk.
No one qualifies as a very experienced dentist. Don’t go out in your first year after graduating and learn how to place implants, when you don’t yet have enough experience in fillings and crowns.
Implants are much more complicated, there’s more potential for things to go wrong, and the fees for patients are higher, which means there’s more chance of receiving a complaint.
A dentist who was my mentor, told me ‘it took me 20 years to become an overnight success at 40’.
You can become popular and famous on social media, but there’s no substitute for learning how to be a good dentist in terms of functionality rather than just cosmetically; people need to be able to eat well just as much as they need to be able to smile well.
Is there anything you think dentists should definitely avoid doing on social media?
One of the things to be very aware of is getting patient consent for anything you post about a patient.
Patients can withdraw their consent at any time, and if you’ve not consented them in the first place, then you could be in a lot of trouble if they suddenly see their photos online, for example, if you’ve posted them as a ‘before and after’ case study on Instagram.
The other thing I think should be avoided is just jumping into social media without any kind of plan. As mentioned above, you need to know if you want this to be a solely business-orientated page or purely personal.
Either way, you will want to put some of your own personality into it, but you also need to make your own restrictions for how much of your personal life you’re willing to share.
So many of us are used to just using social media personally for fun, that we often don’t think about having a plan for it professionally and making necessary adjustments that help to protect you and your reputation.
Could a complaint ever stem from something on social media, and how do you avoid that happening?
Absolutely. If you think the GDC isn’t looking on Facebook and Instagram, then you’re naïve because they definitely are.
There have been a few complaints over recent years and the GDC has started proceedings against people that have been based on something someone has posted or commented about online.
So they definitely have a department at the GDC looking at this sort of thing, and rightly so, although whether that is too intrusive or not is not for me to say.
The best approach to avoid getting into trouble over social media, is to understand that it is a tool to be used and know your own limitations.
Anything that you think may negatively impact you professionally or show you in a different kind of light than you want to be seen, should not be posted on social media.
Remember, that once it’s out there it can be screen-shotted and used against you in the future. So, think carefully about what you’re posting and how it reflects on the kind of professional persona you want to build.
To help protect yourself from complaints, and meet your regulatory requirements, it’s important to have the appropriate professional dental indemnity cover in place.
You can compare dental indemnity policies, quickly and easily – and for free. Simply register here.