By Chris Tapper
Six years ago, I attended a two-day residential course. It was a CPD course I hasten to add, not the usual anger management or ‘appropriate behaviour in the workplace’ type of thing I used to have to attend before they found the right tablets for me.
Anyway, it was very interesting, although I freely admit I never put a single thing I learned into practice – mainly because the dental corporate I work for wouldn’t shell out for the equipment I needed unless I could produce a business plan that proved I could earn them at least a tenner for every quid they invested. But that is by the by.
On the evening of the first day (a Friday if I recall correctly), the ten participants plus the lecturer and two representatives of the sponsoring company, enjoyed a meal in the hotel where the course was being held. After a very pleasant starter and main course, I moved to where a gaggle of four youthful dentists were sitting and enquired as to where they were in terms of their careers. It transpired that all four had graduated from the same Northern dental school and had all been qualified roughly two years. They were all general dental practitioners and had all taken up associateships in NHS practices.
As the most experienced dentist on the course – actually, why mince words, the oldest – I was interested to see if the youngsters were enjoying their chosen profession so far. I think I was trying to vicariously re-establish myself with my early enthusiasm for dentistry.
I posed, what I felt, was a fairly innocuous question to the group:
"How’s it going?"
One female dentist confessed that she cried every night when she arrived home from work, and sometimes did it during surgery sessions. One of the males said he was so anxious about work that he threw up most mornings and that brushing the lingual aspects of his teeth was impossible, while the other female said she had trouble sleeping and had been put on antidepressants six months earlier.
Perhaps the most troubling response was from the other male, who confessed that he had on a number of occasions, thought of ‘ending it,’ having realised that he had made a dreadful mistake in going into dentistry, and couldn’t see any way out. My concern for him diminished a little when I saw that he had an incredibly healthy appetite, demolishing his own rhubarb crumble and a female colleague’s lemon sorbet in less than three minutes.
When I questioned them more closely, the reason for their universal despair was not down to the pursuit of ridiculous UDA targets or the student debts they were saddled with, but the fear of dental litigation.
All four were constantly worried that they would see their careers end either in a GDC meeting, or more likely, through the bad publicity and financial ruin brought about as a result of a civil action facilitated by a dental litigation firm. They felt that the chances of those events happening to them were high, since one of their fellow students had already found himself in the middle of litigation as a result of an NHS root-filling having not worked.
Now that was six years ago, and I would argue that since then, the UK dental profession has slipped into a febrile anxiety that I have never previously witnessed in the 30 years or so that I have been working in dentistry.
Never have I seen dental colleagues (and even strangers) so jaded and so preoccupied with fears of dental complaints and ‘the dreaded letter’ from a certain Northern dental litigation firm.
I will freely accept that I have no scientific evidence for my observations and that my views are based purely on the empirical, but I personally know of no dentist who has not recently entertained thoughts that a patient might ‘turn legal’ if the wind blows the wrong way.
Over the past 18 months, I have been offering support to a close young colleague, being pursued by an extremely aggressive young solicitor (she IS young, I looked her up) who is alleging ‘negligence’ after her client developed dry socket after a routine extraction of an upper first molar. Rightly or wrongly, my colleague decided she did not want to consult her defence organisation and so I have been (rightly or wrongly) equally aggressive in demanding expert witness or consultant reports in support of their absurd claim. So far, the solicitor has failed to provide any evidence of negligence or give any reason why an expert assessor’s report has not been provided. All I know is, it has been fun ‘having a go’ back, but it to me illustrates a sad fact – nobody in the UK-based dental profession is safe from opportunistic punts from patients who want to make a quick quid from the no-win-no-fee mob.
A few months ago, a solicitor I know told me that during a local meeting of his legal colleagues, a speaker said that a lucrative and growing new source of business was dental litigation and that it was “something to think about” since the clampdown on spurious ‘whiplash’ claims and ‘Benidorm Belly’ – where package holiday tourists claim compensation for stomach upsets caused by dubious calamari and fries - had resulted in less opportunity for successful claims.
Recent experience has taught me that dental litigators are a tenacious and avaricious species and are unlikely to give up easily on an area of medical law that they consider to be easy pickings. Certainly, according to my legal friend, lawyers see it as a much easier area to be successful in than medical litigation.
Soon, the cost of dental defence subscriptions will be prohibitive to viable practice, and the profession, once all our European colleagues go back home, will find itself unable to cope with patient demand. What is the answer? Your guess is as good as mine.
Until then, I am going to have a rhubarb crumble and some sorbet.