The Endgame

Throughout the 30 years of my career there have been peaks and troughs regarding the NHS dental system. Actually, the peaks (to me at least) have really only been less deep troughs, but I’m sure you will understand what I’m saying. Most of time the profession has seemed to just get on with it and accept what the various contracts have offered, and learnt to work within them (or around them in the case of a minority). What has always happened when we end up in one of the troughs though has been for dental practices to largely and stoically maintain their NHS commitment, despite the pips being squeezed that bit more firmly each time. There have always been a few practices who have moved out of the NHS to private, but the majority have stayed put.

I have my own reasons for considering why practitioners don’t opt out of the NHS and I think it boils down to the following (in no order of importance). There are likely to be other reasons that I haven’t considered so apologies If I have omitted any alternative reasons an individual may have who is reading this.

Fear of the Unknown

Fear of not having enough patients/work

Concern that there will be a proportion of the populous that cant afford private fees

An underlying need to satisfy their own socialist tendencies

Lack of confidence in their own abilities

Fear of loss of the NHS Pension

Too late in their career.

I can’t take each one of these points and discuss them as this would take too long and bore everyone senseless. However, these are the reasons I had for not taking the leap sooner in my career. Everything I felt would go wrong (for the dentists) with this contract has done, and pretty much in the way that many of us predicted right at the beginning.

It is also clear that there are those who have been able to make the NHS work very well for them (usually in a financial manner), but I am not going there in this blog.

It is very apparent though at the moment that there has never been such an uprising of dissent from the profession post Covid, and there is an increased sound of the rattling of a profession’s collective sabres toward the powers that be. I’m informed the private plan providers are gearing up to deal with an ever increasing number of practitioners who are nearer to making the jump to private dentistry than ever before. It seems that the support that was given to practitioners throughout Covid that was initially seen as generous, has now come with the sort of interest payments a government will always put on its help.

For those of us that made the jump a while ago, I can honestly say the grass is not only greener on this side, but the park-keeper isn’t some jobsworth who has no clue and enforces ever more draconian and financially difficult rules when you stray onto the grass. Actually its not really grass anymore, but a dustblown patch of earth, but it has deteriorated over so long those playing on it don’t actually notice anymore.

However, for the first time in long time, I think the profession is more united in its outlook than it has been. Whilst there is still the obvious fear of the unknown, more NHS practitioners are realising that they are unable to shore up a completely broken system and longer. They are hopefully also realising that it isn’t their fault that they haven’t got the resources (both financial and mental) to care for patients but the responsibility of the State to fund this, not them.

I’ve given up trying to count how many times a new contract has been proposed, piloted and then prototyped before being seen as unacceptable to the DHSC. More dentists must be realising that the only thing that will be acceptable to the powers in Whitehall will be the entire population being treated for less than the current NHS budget. The current crisis is showing that this is patently impossible despite the best efforts of the profession, and I suspect that FINALLY there will be a tipping point in the profession that will lead to a mass exodus of caring practitioners leaving the NHS.

At the moment, there seems to be a distinct lack of concrete offerings from DHSC as to what a new contract will contain, but only the most deluded of us would suggest it’ll be better funded for less onerous working conditions. Cynically, one would say (yet again) that this is exactly what the powers that be want, but they have to make the dentists go private of their own accord so as to avoid the government getting the bad press. I somewhat cynically think the DHSC are paying lip service to the profession by making a show of negotiating with the BDA, but in reality using successive low level civil servants on a fast track to somewhere much more important to their careers in order to practice their techniques and to see if they toe the line. I actually asked on one recent webinar with the DHSC negotiator what time his mum was going to call him in for tea…..

I think the profession has to now consider it is at the point where both sides are not really going to agree. The profession can no longer work under this pressure and provide what it is contractually obliged to do; and the government will not increase funding to the degree that is needed to improve the service and access. I think it will need such a complete rethink of how dentistry works in this country that I cant even begin to suggest an option other than a core service. However this course service would have to be funded at the current level, which we all know isn’t going to happen, as core service will be a further excuse to cut the budget rather than fund dentists appropriately for the business risks they take and the skills they have.

We should take heart that the profession now has the upper hand, but if only it chooses to realise. There are not enough of us and to increase the numbers would take years and years (and look how that has ended up with overseas dentists returning home and the GDC not able to sort out the ORE). We are still the only people who can provide the service we do, and its time for use to remember this and embrace it fully. We have to remember we are only human and cannot care for every single person at our own expense. We have to also look after our own mental health and well-being so that we can properly concentrate on delivering the high standard of care we were trained to do, and not what a system is forcing us into.

It’s time to play the endgame and win.

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You don’t have to do this - letter to a wavering dentist.

You don’t have to do this - letter to a wavering dentist.

You don’t have to do this - a letter to a wavering dentist.

Is this really what you want to do? You don’t have to.

Many students have made their decisions to study dentistry at university in their mid-teens, an age when they are neither mature nor in possession of great insight.

Parents, family and teachers see dentistry as a well-remunerated, successful profession with a secure future. Well positioned on any socially acceptable list that makes it traditionally attractive to the children of immigrants. My mother, a migrant from Ireland was determined that both her children would have professions, her background, in nursing, favoured the medical. I became a dentist, my brother a doctor.

How many of us have the nerve to say that it’s not what they want? Many dentists are ill suited to a profession that makes extensive physical, mental and emotional demands on its members. I am not convinced that the undergraduate course prepares students for the rigours of general practice.

After 5 undergraduate years and now carrying a large student debt it takes a brave new graduate to dare admit to parents and family that they have studied the wrong subject. If you have a degree in humanities or pure sciences you are fortunate to be able to continue with your subject. Only with a “vocational” degree is the graduate able, and expected, to follow a career pathway.

Socially, turning away is akin to failing to show up at your own wedding. An individual might be secretly admired for admitting that they don’t feel the commitment needed for a happy marriage but it’s a brave dentist who says that they have done the wrong thing.

Turn things on their head, if you know in your heart of hearts that you are going to be unfulfilled and unhappy being a dentist isn’t it better to say so sooner rather than later? How many more miserable years can you tolerate? How much stress and heartache can you endure once you have admitted to yourself that you’re in the wrong place?

Far too many dentists have plodded on through degree, foundation training, associateship, partnership, marriage and children all carrying with them increasing financial pressures.

They thinking that this is the way that it has to be, that it will get better, easier, less of trial to get out of bed in the morning - next year. They live from holiday to holiday and get absolutely no fulfilment or satisfaction from the clinical work that they do or the people for whom they are supposed to care.

Often they succumb to the stressors. One of my contemporaries only accepted that he had a problem when he needed a quarter bottle of vodka to start work in the morning and was facing his third drink driving conviction.

I have attended funerals of successful and apparently happy dentists who have taken their own lives because they could only see one way out.

These problems are not unique to dentists and many people “live lives of quiet desperation” so I would encourage them to change also, if they can.

What else is possible?

The answer is anything that you want to be. There are ex-dentists who are successful architects, writers, lawyers, musicians and businessmen. I know of one former specialist orthodontist who now builds dry-stone walls (and will also teach you how to build them). The discipline of your training means that you are suited to re-train in many disciplines.

Let’s not forget those people who are stuck in a rut. NHS dentistry has never embraced excellence, though lots of good work is done in spite of the system. You will never perform at the highest level on the conveyor belt of UDAs or whatever imposed system of production is in vogue this year.

If you are having second thoughts then I suggest that you examine your reasons. If you feel that you aren’t right for a job that demands a high standard of manual dexterity in order to practice at its best then you should explore your options.

Darwin says that empathy is instinctive not learned, so if you are not a person-person will you be happy going against the grain and attempting to gain the trust of your patients day in day out for the next 30 years?

If you are doing it just for the money, you will probably be disappointed at the amount of further training, dedication to a career pathway and sheer hard work that it will take. You might get a better return on the invested time in some other field.

On the other hand if you stay and you choose to dedicate yourself to a unique discipline, then every day will give a new challenge. You have the opportunity to grow as the leader of a team in a niche where you help your patients not only to achieve and maintain an important element of their general health but also to have an enhanced sense of confidence, comfort and function.

If you want to be happier then say so, and do something. This isn’t a rehearsal, there is no second chance, no re-run, no “it’ll be all right on the night”. If you want to be better nobody can do it for you. If you need help ask those who have already done it, study excellence and embrace it.

Polonius said to his son:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

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Recent comment in this post
Gaurav Vij

Great post....

Great post and sums it up succinctly. My experience is very few are cut out to be dentists. You are basically a surgeon in the cla... Read More
Saturday, 16 January 2016 07:20
17413 Hits

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