The Definitive Guide To
Writing Referral Letters
Let’s start with the essentials. Referral letters should contain the basics; name, sex (if any – I don’t like to ask really), date of birth and reason for returning….oh sorry, that’s sending a parcel back to Amazon. Long gone are the days of “Please see and treat,” so try and give the specialist you are referring to, a bit of a clue as to the reason for your referral. Throw in a couple of vague differential diagnoses if you can, just to demonstrate you aren’t completely gormless, with proper medical terms like ‘epidermolysis bullosa’ or ‘squishy lump.’ It’s probably best not to refer a patient just because you don’t like the look of them, tempting though it is.
If you are worried about a lump, it’s best to send to a consultant lumpologist. But beware, some specialisms do cross over and consultants can get a bit elbowy and will fight over interesting lesions. I once witnessed a near fist-fight between an oral medic and an oral surgery registrar – both convinced they could write a paper about it. Every time, make sure you are referring to the most appropriate department. One department will treat a lesion with a spray and ineffective mouthwash, while another will cut it out and put an implant in its place.
Oral surgery referrals are probably the most common type made. It’s not quite clear why this should be. Fewer dentists get into trouble over oral surgery than perio neglect or root-treatments. I think that oral surgery is probably all a bit too gooey for a lot of dentals and the anticipation of complications is overthought. Because oral surgery departments are absolutely swamped, you have to make a convincing case. Warfarin patients are no longer a bar to treatment in practice, so throw in ‘difficult access’ and ‘a history of difficult extractions’ for good measure. ‘Proximity to the antrum’ doesn’t often wash. Since many oral surgery departments insist on you supplying a supporting radiograph, they can justifiably throw out the referral and tell you where to stick your jpeg when they realise it’s a lower molar you are talking about.
These are probably a little more clear-cut, if you completely ignore IOTN, which I did. I doubt very much if it’s done now, but the acronym ‘FLK’ (Funny Looking Kid) in the margins of the old paper files, acted as a reminder to refer to the orthodontist once the overcrowding started to hurt your aesthetic sensibilities. I find FLK’s generally DO get orthodontic treatment, so providing they are reasonably competent with toothbrushing, and generally look as if they’re using the hairy end, send that referral. Again, don’t just ask to ‘see and treat’. Throw in ‘well-motivated,’ ‘optimal oral hygiene’ and ‘very stroppy mother’ to emphasise the need for action. Chuck in a couple of measurements if you can, and try and crowbar in a stab at a ‘division’ to show to the orthodontist you’ve given it some careful consideration.
This type of referral is usually done in panic five minutes after you have just unexpectedly lost a BPE probe down a previously scoring ‘1,’ so do try and keep the panic out of your letter. Make it sound like you’ve been closely monitoring things for a considerable period of time and really emphasise that when you first saw the patient, most of the damage was already done. ‘Despite my oral hygiene instruction’ also shows that you have been caring, but don’t get too down about having to refer and being condemned by the periodontist. The specialist will probably only see the patient for twenty minutes max anyway, and will never see them again, immediately throwing the patient into the ‘Pit of Hygienists.’
Endodontic referrals are becoming incredibly popular and you are highly unlikely to get one rejected, since they are often made to private specialists. Don’t bother trying to refer to your local dental hospital. The sun will have died well before your patient gets to the top of the list. Besides, dental hospital endodontists are exceptionally picky about what they treat. My local dental hospital won’t treat any tooth beyond a first molar. They aren’t that clear why, though I suspect it’s because trying to get to a seven is a bit ‘too fiddly.’ Failure in endodontics is a growing area of litigation and if you are an NHS dentist in particular, don’t risk ANY root-treatment – refer. You can throw a lot of information into your referral letter – sclerosis, unusual anatomy or “There’s a prominent squiddly-do on my radiograph” – but it doesn’t matter. These are endodontists. They have to pay for swanky microscopes and German Sportwagen. They’ll accept anything.
See Endodontic Referrals. Patients think they are the same thing anyway.
Tricky. Prosthetics specialists are a dying species. Their natural habitat in the 60’s and 70’s was gummy, but since forestation with teeth, the need for them has diminished. The few prosthetists left, tend to pack together at dental schools, desperately attempting to procure close relationships with implantologists, borne out of their innate instinct to survive. Having said all that, I have had more referrals rejected by prosthetics specialists than any other type. To be absolutely honest with you, whatever you say in your referral to a denture specialist, they’ll write back with “We would recommend extending the flanges and see no reason why this cannot be carried out in practice. Now leave me alone. I need to bury my nuts for the winter.” Good luck.
This is where you send all of your ‘challenging’ patients, or those that take an hour to do an enamel-only incisal edge composite on. Terms you should include in your letter are ‘wriggly,’ ‘anxious,’ ‘fearful,’ ‘phobic’ and ‘gagger,’ though be careful you don’t end up making it sound like a Facebook advert for happy hour at the local S&M Club. Make it absolutely clear that this patient needs sedation. Forget about suggesting GA. The clinicians at these emporia don’t stop talking about the risk of death from the time the patient enters the place having found it after previously mistakenly walking into the adjacent STD Clinic. If your local clinics have their own referral forms and it gives you the option to have the patient back if they refuse sedation, tick ‘NO!!!’
Quite a few restorative specialists lurk in dental schools, but despite this, they try not to have anything to do with teeth. There is only one important, indeed, CRITICAL sentence you need to include in your referral letter, and that is: “I am ALREADY monitoring the diet and wear.”
You will normally refer to the oral medicine specialists as a means of backing up your diagnosis, which is almost certainly, atypical facial pain/burning mouth syndrome. Often, you would save a lot of time by giving a nightguard or benzydamine hydrochloride rather than wasting your time on a referral letter.
It was a glorious September afternoon in 1966. The sun was streaming through gleaming windows. England had won the World Cup, and I had just moved to an exciting and brand new senior school. The classroom had spanking new desks with inkwells, filled with free ink you could draw up into your refillable Parker fountain pen. All was well with the world.
Mrs Wojciechowski, who was also our form teacher, was beginning our first ever French language lesson. I was trying hard to concentrate and confess I missed the meaning of ‘je m’appelle,’ because Peter Hadley who was sitting next to me, was crushing and drowning wasps in his inkwell, with what I regarded as an inferior fountain pen – the sort that scratched, rather than flowed Quink luxuriantly on to the page. Another failing of his pen was that as a tool for Vespidacide, it was failing miserably, one poor creature valiantly struggling to get itself out of the inky torture chamber. Not knowing at that point that Peter Hadley was a distant relative of a notorious Birmingham crime family and was destined to become the school’s head ‘hard-knock,’ I nudged him out the way and offered the tip of my pen to the bedraggled Hymenoptera, so that it had a means of escape from an indelibly inky death.
I suddenly heard a scream that sounded like a French woman shouting ‘murderer,’ but later realised I was in fact witnessing my first ever French swear-word - ‘merde,’ to be precise. I looked up to see Mrs Wojciechowski (French-born, despite her name) bearing down on our twin desk with a wooden ruler in her hand, and quicker than one of my Maryland bridges falls off, she had whacked the back my hand with the EDGE of the ruler, with all the might that her 4ft 6in frame could muster.
This episode was not only painful and a miscarriage of justice, but humiliating to boot and for the rest of that year, Mrs Wojciechowski looked at me with a deep loathing, like I had presented my dentist with the post-crown for recementing after I had retrieved it from the bottom of the Armitage Shanks two days after swallowing it. Upon realising I was under constant surveillance by Mrs Wojciechowski, I made sure I was never near a wasp, bee or inkwell ever again in that school.
I switched to a BIC not long after.
“My theory is along the following lines. Ahem."
We all know inherently, that it is becoming more and more difficult to avoid complaints these days, bombarded as the public is, with targeted Internet adverts and radio advertising. Even looking up and typing ‘dental complaints’ in Google as research for this article, brought up a host of dental litigation firm’s adverts on my Facebook page and various online news sites I read regularly, within an hour.
I strolled into a colleague’s surgery the other day to catch the end of a radio advert by ‘THEM’ – you know, the Cheshire-based mob, enticing dental patients to use them for all their dental litigation needs. I was appalled – I never listen to radio in the surgery – I just inflict my old-bloke’s iTunes playlist – from the Bee Gees to The Eagles to Snoop Dogg on my nurses day in, day out. It’s the reason I oppose permanent nurses, it means they don’t fatigue and burn out on my repetitious Barbara Streisand and Pussy Riot.
I couldn’t believe that these litigation firms were so ‘in-your-face’ with their radio ads, but my colleague confirmed that she heard them at least a couple of times a day and she often talks loudly over them to distract the patient in the chair from memorising the phone number.
Not only are civil claims mediated by the specialist dental litigation firms rising at a seemingly exponential rate (if you don’t believe me, look at your indemnity organisation’s annual subscriptions year-on-year), but cases brought to the GDC’s Fitness to Practice (FtP) process are also rising faster than caseworkers can write ‘dishonest’ on a charge sheet even if you haven’t been charged with dishonesty. From 2010 to 2014, FtP cases rose by 110 per cent. What the rise in civil and GDC cases is now, in the four years since 2014, is difficult to ascertain, but I feel it’s not outlandish to bet that the same rate of rise is probably not far out.
Most of us will know someone who is currently experiencing a spot of bother with the NHS Area Team, the GDC, or more likely, some chancer who has been taken in by a law firm who has found their supply of whiplash clients has suddenly dried up. A colleague of mine has recently been pursued by a patient claiming damages for a dry socket. Sheesh.
But, is the increase in patient expectations, fuelled by the easy access to no-win-no fee legal services, the only reason for the large rise in dental patient complaints?
“Ahem. This theory which belongs to me, is as follows. Ahem. Ahem. This is how it goes. Ahem. The next thing that I am about to say is my theory. Ahem. Ready?”
Well, here goes.
We all know nowadays, that the most important issue surrounding litigation is the paperwork. Have you recorded the BPE? Have you recorded why you are taking radiographs? Have you recorded why you aren’t taking radiographs? That’s what we’re obsessed with – getting the paperwork right so the statistical algorithms down at the NHSBSA don’t flag us up, or so we have a nice neat piece of work to show your defence organisation when they summon you for a day long grilling at a plush lawyer’s office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
But the whole reason you have ended up in trouble is that the patient wasn’t happy with your treatment (or some pig of a dentist who never liked you dropped you in it, but that’s another matter).
“My theory is along the following lines. All brontosauruses are thin at one end, much MUCH thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end. That is the theory that I have and which is mine, and what it is too.”
Before 2006 and the introduction of the UDA-based ‘new’ contract, we all had, every few weeks, a sample of completed patients pulled by the Dental Reference Service and dragged into some God-forsaken community dental clinic, to have their work checked. The Dental Reference Officer (DRO) would check that you had a) carried out what you had claimed for, and b) done it nicely and hadn’t missed anything.
Admittedly, quite a few patients didn’t attend as requested (despite the fact they had consented to do so in the small print), but as a recent graduate, I was always quite on edge knowing that my work was going to be scrutinised by dentists that I considered by be my elders and betters. Dentists had the option of attending the DRO’s examination. In the main, I chose not to go. On one occasion, I did go.
And frankly, these checks focussed the mind. I was never accused of missing perio during that time, though I was once criticised for leaving a sub-gingival ledge the size of Chiswick on the distal of an upper six. Knowing that ANY patient could be pulled in for post-op examination by a DRO meant you left nothing to chance, even if you did note it. The DRO’s rebuke over the ledge, to my FACE, was like Mrs Wojciechowski’s ruler across the back of the hand. I have been very wary of ledges ever since. They have a nasty sting. I've missed LOADS of other stuff, but ledges are at a minimum.
I have no evidence for my theory, but I do wonder if the increasing litigation, particularly with regard to periodontal problems, could be as a result of there being no, what I would call ‘proper,’ check on the work carried out by dentists. (And this is by no means confined to NHS dentists). Even when cases against dentists go forward, patients are RARELY actually examined.
I would frankly, welcome them.
In 1983, after I had been at dental school for a year – some ten years after leaving school, I attended a summer garden party with my wife. Across the garden, I noticed a pair of latecomers. An elderly, tall, burly, Eastern European looking man with a shock of white hair, and a petite little lady of similar vintage, hanging off his arm. I instantly recognised Mrs Wojciechowski.
Encouraged by my wife, I approached her. My former teacher clearly didn’t recognise me ( l like to think I had by that time turned into a swan), so I introduced myself as one of her former pupils.
She said three words to me (this is absolutely true) and walked away:
“Oh **** off!”
And it wasn’t in French.
This is where I stand.
A few years ago, before David Cameron adopted the foetal position and waved the white flag to the advancing UKIPS, giving them the Brexit referendum, I was stopped by a ‘kipper’ in the high street of my adopted home city. I was asked if I wanted to forever remain ‘dominated’ by some ‘faceless European bureaucrat who would force us to consume straight bananas and live in dimly lit buildings powered by puny Dutch lightbulbs, or put the ‘Great’ back in Britain.
I answered thus:
“If I were the Prime Minister and had unlimited funds, I’d build a motorway bridge from here (the Midlands) directly to Paris.”
It was a nonsense answer – the sort that Donald Trump would have given – but I thought it got my point across. I am, and always will be, a European - a citizen of the world. I think Brexit is madness, and at a time when the world is becoming more and more fragmented, I strongly feel we need unity.
In the past couple of weeks, two of my closest dental friends – both from the EU, have indicated that they are thinking of returning to their countries of origin, having worked in UK dentistry for several years. Both were worried about the uncertainty surrounding their rights to residency – an issue still not absolutely clarified by the UK Government.
Another East European friend has recently left my corporate practice to go into independent dentistry, unable to cope with the madness of the NHS, UDA system. This has left the corporate practice critically short of clinicians and attempts to bring in either a permanent dentist or long-term locum has failed. (OK, fair enough, it IS a corporate after all). Many foreign dentists I have met have all been working for a UDA rate much lower than their home-grown counterparts and it is them in the main (it appears to me) that are prepared to work at a rate UK-born dentists would turn their noses up at.
One former corporate practice manager told me recently that she was told to offer prospective dental associates different UDA rates – foreign nationals being offered two pounds per UDA less than their UK counterparts.
I know of a number of NHS practices locally, which are currently struggling to find fully qualified associates of either UK, EU or other origin and this of course contributes to the lengthening of waiting lists and reception desk grumbling. With unattractive salaries on offer, particularly from the corporates, it is no wonder some practices are struggling to recruit. I once put myself on a few dental jobs websites and despite pleading to be taken off, am daily bombarded with all manner of associate jobs, from part-time to ‘whatever you can manage.’
Besides EU nationals going home as a result of Jacob Rees-Mogg, in 2017, a private Freedom Of Information request obtained from the General Dental Council showed that foreign dentist numbers dwindled in 2016, since nearly 40% of dentists who were found to have impairment of their fitness to practice originated from the EU or outside the UK and EU. This represented just over 3.7% of the total ‘foreign’ dentist workforce as contrasted to the 0.2% of naughty UK dentists based on 2018 registrant figures.
A search of the number of dental therapists in trouble with the GDC finds no such comparable statistics. Apart from one therapist in 2005 who was erased for performing a filling without a dentist prescription and one in 2013 who forgot to pay her Annual Retention Fee, there has been an exceptionally low rate of fitness to practice cases brought against therapists.
These days, since I work in a corporate, I meet very few therapists, but I have a very high opinion of them from personal experience. I will admit, I was forced into it because I couldn’t find an associate to move out into the sticks where my practice was located, but I employed a dental therapist in my own practice for a while a few years ago and her work was very good - providing a top-notch client service as well as taking patient appointment pressures off me. Her employment was also economically, a ‘no-brainer,’ being cheaper than employing an associate at 50% renumeration. I also trained with a mature dental therapist in the early 80’s. She flew through the dental course with ease, knocking spots of her classmates.
With many practices searching fruitlessly for fully-qualified post-vocational training dentists to replace fleeing dentists (for whatever reason), I wonder if we are missing a trick? Why not put these underutilised dental professionals to full use? Even the corporates haven’t caught on to this yet – presumably because they haven’t done the sums fully. Dental therapists can perform a wide range of tasks that can leave the corporate associates more time for searching for materials or stabbing the practice manager in the back. The only fly-in-the-ointment would be the stroppy associate who resents writing a prescription, but they can always be blackmailed with ‘OK. Do you want to do a radiograph audit after 5.00pm?”
In independent/NHS practice, remuneration would be a simple matter of a salary or hourly rate. In corporates, a nod to the associate’s prescription input would have to be acknowledged, so that he can get on to providing Band 3 mouthguards for someone who may have heard a vague click in their left TMJ in 1998.
Having said all that, I WILL miss my European colleagues if they do decide to go.
When I first met her, one of my EU friends was trying to pick up some British colloquialisms, mainly taught to her by her dental nurse, a girl with a mischievous sense of humour.
I arrived with my wife at the new house she was occupying with her now (British) husband. We had a lovely traditional meal from her home country, but then she apologised for the lack of furniture, and although we were perfectly comfortable at the dining table, she pointed to a couple of ample beanie’s in the lounge area and asked “Or would you prefer sitting on the douche-bags?”
David Cameron, what did you do?