Practice Plan presents a round-up of news items published in the general media on dentistry in 2015, offering insight into the public’s perception of both NHS and private dentistry.
The dental news year kicked off with many print and online news outlets detailing the results of a Which? report, which found that dentists were not being sufficiently transparent with their treatment fees. What seemed most obvious about the results was that people were confused. For example, 40% said they were not clear about what treatments they were entitled to on the NHS.
These findings were somewhat unsurprising given, as Mick Armstrong, the chairman of the British Dental Association (BDA), was quoted as saying in a BDA press release: ‘Unfortunately the rules determined by government have proved a recipe for confusion. Neither the NHS contract nor what the NHS will pay for is clear enough. It's a system that is failing patients and practitioners alike.’
‘In the narrow window available in a time-pressed NHS, a dentist must explain not just the technical details of clinical treatment options, but also the workings of the payment system and where the NHS and private treatment cross-over.’
‘With such a muddled set of arrangements, the system almost sets up the dentists working in it to fail.’
Building on this, in February The Scotsman, among other media sources, informed us that private dentist charges were akin to a postcode lottery, according to a survey by WhatClinic.com. Putting a positive spin on what was essentially negative PR for private dentists up and down the UK, Emily Ross, director of WhatClinic.com, suggested there were ‘huge savings’ to be made if patients were willing to shop around.
Come March, the name Desmond D'Mello hit the headlines, with the BBC reporting that five people treated by the dentist, who was investigated for poor hygiene, had tested positive for hepatitis C. This was the result of the largest ever patient recall in NHS history, involving 22,000 people. As the resulting BDA statement quite rightly indicated: ‘Dentists across the UK are setting high standards, and any exceptions are both regrettable and rare’, but perhaps the damage had already been done in terms of public perception.
April saw the publication of the results of a Freedom of Information request made to the NHS Business Services Authority about the pensionable pay of dentists who perform NHS dentistry. The Independent shared with its readers that: ‘The pay of the top five NHS dentists has been revealed to be nearly five times the Prime Minister's £142,000 pay packet.’ Clearly there is more to this report but, alas, the dental professionals’ side of the story was not shared.
May brought with it headlines that everyone scared of the dentist could relate to – a woman apparently used superglue to stick her teeth back in as she was too afraid to make an appointment to have the situation treated appropriately. The Mirror reported that ultimately 11 teeth had to be removed and implants placed.
This patient’s story was subsequently covered in June in the BBC documentary, The truth about your teeth. On it, she said: ‘Wonderful, isn’t it? I feel amazing and there are no hands over my mouth or embarrassment and the difference people have said in me, noticed in me, my friends, things like that, they’re just like, oh my God, you’re more outgoing.’ This was a great outcome for the patient but as it was clear that the treatment was provided privately, it left some wondering if NHS dentistry was private dentistry’s poor, frightening relation.
Despite this report, on the whole The truth about your teeth presented a relatively positive view of dentistry, including the capability of dentistry to transform lives for the better, as well as the clinical and interpersonal skills of those who performed the treatment shown.
Then, on 16 June, The Daily Mail came up with the shocking headline of: ‘How greedy dentists are fleecing families: Investigation reveals that they hide prices, block NHS treatment and needlessly pull out teeth’. Despite this most unfortunate headline firmly placing blame at the dental practice’s door, the article itself did impart some semblance of sense for those who read beyond the attention-grabbing introduction, highlighting the access problem dogging NHS dentistry. This article was followed up the next day in the same newspaper, in the form of an opinion piece written by Sarah Vine, who criticised the NHS system rather than dentists.
Balancing the sensationalism, Mick Armstrong said: ‘These arbitrary targets have proved a real obstacle for new NHS patients. Many dentists would like to see more patients, but this is impossible within rigid contracts. For far too long oral health has been left out of the health debate and this new evidence provides fresh impetus for government to reassess its agenda.’
July saw The Guardian highlighting the suggested link between oral health and systemic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Carrying that all-important message that ‘…twice-daily brushing with a fluoride toothpaste is the best route to healthy teeth and gums, combined with regular trips to the dentist’, this was certainly a positive story for the dental profession and the public alike.
In August, Guardian Weekly asked: ‘Why does going to the dentist feel like a trip back in time to the stone age?’ Linking in to what appears to be a common misconception, author Carloyn Johnson explored why this view continues to dog the dental profession, investigating whether it is the result a public relations problem. After all, dentistry has moved on in leaps and bounds; yet, as Denis Kinane, Dean of the Dental School at the University of Pennsylvania, said in the piece: ‘This kind of cleaning that means someone has got to spend time scraping every tooth is laborious and antiquated but we’re working on that right now.’
Also in August, The Daily Mail and other news outlets picked up on new figures revealing that every week in the UK, 500 children aged between five to nine years old are admitted to hospital as a result of tooth-related problems. The paper also reported that experts considered the problem was likely to get worse, because access to a dentist is a growing problem.
Placing the blame firmly in the lap of the Conservative party, Professor Nigel Hunt, Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, was quoted as saying: ‘This data reveals a decade of inertia in access to dentistry. It's appalling that tooth decay remains the most common reason why five-to-nine-year-olds are admitted to hospital – in some cases for multiple tooth extractions under general anaesthetic – despite tooth decay being almost entirely preventable. Visiting the dentist regularly is crucial in providing rapid diagnosis and treatment to prevent both children and adults from being hospitalised due to tooth decay. The new Government needs to urgently review why access is not improving and launch a national campaign to stress the importance of seeing a dentist.'
It would be remiss to produce an article on dental news in 2015 without touching upon Cecil the lion and US dentist Walter Palmer, since it took up so many column inches over the summer. One man’s pursuit of big game, which had nothing to do with dentistry, suddenly demonised the profession in a most unfair and unfortunate way.
What this has the ability to teach all of us, as reported by The Huffington Post, is that the importance of public relations should not be underestimated: ‘….it used to be said that you shouldn't say something you wouldn't want reported in The Times tomorrow. Today, the danger is much greater. Walter Palmer damaged his own livelihood because of an inability to understand the importance of online social networks and collective value. Social capital matters. Whether you are an individual or an organisation, your voice online will be heard, and by a greater audience than who you market to offline. Long gone are the days of having complete control of your image and perception. Like Mr Palmer now realises, the power of people is huge and the conversation is two-way.’
September brought headlines concerning an alleged link between going to the dentist and Alzheimer’s. The Daily Mail blamed the connection on contaminated instruments but failed to cover the fact that dental professionals’ employ stringent infection control protocols. The same article also suggested that severe periodontitis can trigger Alzheimer’s.
In October, thanks again to The Daily Mail, we met Natalya Rosenschein, who wants to be ‘Britain's toughest dentist’. With the dental student reported to ‘juggle teeth-pulling with weightlifting’, it was something of a shame that an opportunity had been missed to use more positive language to boost the profession’s hard work both in the surgery and out of it.
Looking to the future
For dentists looking to the future and trying to decide whether NHS, private or mixed practice holds the key to success for their practice, keeping an eye on public perception can help. Alongside the issues that need be considered to reach an informed conclusion, such as financial viability and strategic direction, there has to be a public desire for what you are planning to offer.
There is no crystal ball that is going to provide dentists with a definitive answer, but with 2015 coming to a close, this year’s news reported in consumer media about dentistry has taught us that despite imparting a considerable amount of negativity – especially if readers don’t get past the mostly sensationalist headlines– dentistry is a topic of interest. It therefore seems that the challenge is to capitalise on this curiosity by considering what this means for your practice’s future.
Practice Plan is the UK’s number one provider of practice-branded dental plans. They have been supporting dentists with NHS conversions for more than 20 years, helping them to evaluate their options and, for those who decide to make the change, guiding them through a safe and successful transition to private practice. So, if you’re thinking about your future and would like some expert advice you can trust, then call 01691 684165 or visit www.practiceplan.co.uk/nhs.