The Only Way is Ethics

The one thing that has been a constant in my entire career so far, and has been the fundamental guiding force to everything I do, has been my ethical compass.

Where it came from originally I suppose was my upbringing, but then further refined by exposure to teaching (particularly clinical) of such a style it helped me to understand what an important position we as professionals hold, and the huge responsibilities we have to other people, primarily our patients.

Whilst clinical experience and techniques have doubtless changed through my practicing career as it does for all of us, the ethics of how and what I do have remained a fundamental baseline that cannot be compromised in my opinion.

I’m sure for the majority of the profession this rings happily true. So much so I have wrestled with even submitting this blog for publication. After all, none of us know anyone in the profession who could do with taking a good look at themselves and thinking about what I’ve written here…..

There are times when I have had to wrestle with what the right course of action is clinically, but these dilemmas have always been fairly straightforward when put in the perspective of how other medical professionals might have to act, and I’m actually quite grateful that for the vast majority of us our day to day decisions are rarely likely to have life changing impacts on our patients, especially when compared to the huge responsibilities of cardiac surgeons or oncologists for example.


If our ethical compasses have become somehow magnetized by a malign influence that we fail to see, ignore, or indeed we positively allow to affect us in some way, then our actions will have potentially life changing impacts on our patients. Ok, so maybe not as severe as for the medical professionals mentioned above; but certainly at odds with the ‘First do No Harm’ principle we swear an oath to.

I am purposely NOT going to go into the potential malign influences of the NHS contract and how it might be abused or gamed; I leave readers to draw their own conclusions about this after reading this piece. What I will say is that my examples below probably only scratch the surface of what might be happening in our profession.

There is huge increase in the cost of indemnity, and whilst we have a GDC that is not fit for purpose causing at least part of this increase, it surely cannot be solely due to that alone. We can blame no win-no fee solicitors to a degree, but don’t forget that cases have to have some merit to be paid out, even if only on the balance of probabilities. Otherwise, they are defensible.

So, consider the parallel increase in availability of orthodontics and implants in recent years. This blog incidentally is NOT aimed solely at the orthodontic aspect although it may seem so; it is purely written from my personal experience of one aspect of our profession that I have experience in so feel able to comment on a bit more.

These treatments are by their very nature high value items, and potentially have a higher profit margin that some of the more routine treatments offered. The courses maybe expensive, as is the equipment needed to carry out the treatment. Being the principal of a practice that offers both these treatments, I am pretty well placed to know the financial aspects of them. What is worrying is that there seems to be a section of the profession that immediately has a new direction on their ethical compass when they start to offer these services, sometimes after only a weekend course. Admittedly this might apply more to the orthodontic side of things as I think it is now more recognized that implants are not quite as simple as Meccano to install.

But with the increase in availability (or is it an increase in higher pressure marketing and selling??) we see the parallel, and often steeper rise in litigation and Fitness to Practice associated with these treatments. Personally, I think a good chunk of this is due to the magnetism that potentially affects the compass of some of the profession after being exposed to these treatment modalities.

It’s one thing coming away from a weekend composite course having learnt what is likely to be a refinement of an existing technique, to actually introducing a whole new treatment modality to your patient base that wasn’t taught at all at undergraduate level. The ethics of such a situation are different in my eyes. When at least some of the course is given over to how to sell the new treatment to your patients on some courses (rather than spending it further exploring the ethics, assessment, case selection etc) it is not surprising that magnetism is already starting to alter the direction of the needle on your compass…

There is nothing wrong with a return on investment, but it’s how you go about getting that return that might be the problem.

Let me give you some background with regard to my orthodontic experience to put into perspective where I am coming from.

I was fortunate to work as a clinical assistant in the mid 90’s in orthodontics. One morning per week I treated patients under the supervision of a consultant in a regional hospital, and this continued for about 4 or 5 years. By that time I had seen and indeed treated some pretty advanced cases under very close supervision. I was also treating simpler cases in practice as an associate. Along with another general practitioner, we estimated this experience prepared us to treat perhaps 30% more of our orthodontic patients in practice, but more importantly it had taught us how to identify what we definitely couldn’t or shouldn’t treat. The ethics of what we could now do was drilled home all the time since we often got to see the slightly more ‘random’ orthodontic treatments that had failed in the hands of practitioners with experience only of removable appliances at undergraduate level.

We had begun to Know what we Didn’t Know.

Since then I have also been on the courses for commercially available appliances of different types, and had the advantage of my previous experience in looking at the systems and the teaching a little more objectively than perhaps some of the other delegates.

The problem comes when some of our profession don’t have these limiting factors in their internal ethical system. Some are possibly not enough motivated by the desire to always only do the right thing by their patient, but by their own financial and even egotistical drives. There have always been those in our profession who seem to have a sliding scale of principles, and are more driven for their own gains (and the patients may or may not gain as a result). I actually don’t feel that there are any more truly ‘bad guys’ in dentistry now as a percentage than in the past despite what the GDC think; but I think the potential for damage to our patients has increased because perhaps the fundamental ethics we should all have in place, in some are allowed to erode.

Combine this with the further issue now that with a lack of experience at undergraduate level for some aspects of dentistry, the starting point for not knowing what you don’t know is now much lower than perhaps it was in the past. This is where the ethics should come in to play, and whilst I applaud the efforts to fill a gap in the treatment needs by offering training in fields not covered by the undergraduate training, there doesn’t seem to be an ethical ‘lock’ in place with some practitioners to prevent them seeking their financial gain over that of the patient.

More controversially with regards to their ethical direction, perhaps they Don’t (want to) know what they Don’t Know about ethics?

So when the treatment goes awry because of not knowing enough about what wasn’t known, and the ethical direction was slightly (or massively) off, the profession has a HUGE potential for life changing impacts on both patients and its members.

This brings me on to the thorny subject of ‘selling’ in dentistry. Now, I have absolutely NO issues with dentistry as a retail environment, offering services to patients. Indeed, in order to keep a viable business in this ever competitive age, you have to consider how best to let your patients know the services you can offer them. I certainly do, and I feel it is another method of protecting ourselves from criticism that we are not offering a full range of options to our patients.

But ‘selling’ has to be fundamentally and overwhelmingly in the patient’s benefit, and not ours. I worry about some of the techniques I know can be used by some industries that if (or should that be when?) used in ours would exert an influence on the patient designed to get them to agree to treatment whether that is the right thing for them or not, or even more worryingly, whether the practitioner is truly capable of providing the treatment correctly or not. The pound signs appear, the ethics can get completely switched off, and it becomes a one sided benefit.

But what if you actually CAN’T solve those issues? (and are either aware you can’t, or just bite off more than you can chew?). The classical ‘Over Promising and Under Delivering’ is a guaranteed route to problems for patients and the reputation of the profession.

This is where the huge problem occurs. The practitioner that doesn’t know ENOUGH about what he/she doesn’t know, having been blinded by clinical and other courses that seem to offer all the answers to patients problems and get them to agree to treatment, with an underlying anaesthesia of the ethical values (if they ever had one in some cases) for what ever reason is not doing the best for their patient.

At all.

Without the ethical compass pointing in the correct direction, then there are those in the profession who cannot with their hands on the hearts say that they are truly driven by doing the right thing for patients. Take the ego and the financial aspect out, and their direction is quite possibly completely lost.

Until we make sure all our ethical compasses are calibrated properly, I’m afraid the GDC (in whatever guise it takes) will continue to be on our backs, and our Indemnity will continue to rise. The press will see us in the wrong light, and so will patients.

We need a return to the fundamental values of what we do and what that means to us and the patients.

And to do that, The Only Way is Ethics.


Image credit - Paul Downey  under CC licence - not modified.