Absolute trust

Michael Watson explains why the Gordon Pate case and the role of the GDC is so important.

One hundred and forty years ago, Parliament passed the necessary legislation to set up a register of those entitled to call themselves ‘dentists’.

Although at that time you could still ‘practice’ dentistry without being registered, provided you did not describe yourself as a dentist.

This loophole was closed by the 1921 Act, which laid down that only qualified (and registered) dentists could practice dentistry.

This history is necessary to understanding the rows over the case of Gordon Pate (Oh what a circus), with a reply from the GDC’s Matthew Hill and also the news from the GDC CEO Ian Brack, published on the Dentistry website, that the ARF would remain at same (high) level in 2019.

Protecting the public

Although the response from the profession has been overwhelmingly critical of the GDC on both issues, the unpalatable fact is that the GDC, like the GMC and all other bodies that regulate professions, exist solely for the protection of the public.

The patient or client has absolute trust in the professional they see, providing the latter are registered with a regulatory body – absolute trust – no questions asked.

This absolute trust means that I, as a patient, do not have to check on the internet for the qualifications or competency of any healthcare professional, provided they are registered.

I can also be confident that I will not be treated any differently from any other patient on the grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation or lifestyle choices.

And to this end, when I was a registered dentist, I had to abide by the rules laid down by the General Dental Council.


When I was first registered in 1965, I received a little red book that explained what the rules were and they were not all clinical, but concerned how I should behave.

The little red book has gone, but the rules or standards as we now call them remain.

They may well go beyond the law of the land and may impinge on dentists rights to free speech and freedom of action.

Back in 1965, some of the greatest strictures were against advertising, including the size of your professional plate, the name of your practice and calling yourself ‘doctor’, all above and beyond the law.

But that was the price we paid and still pay for the absolute trust that our patients have in us.

The medical scandals that have beset our sister professions have threatened to erode that trust and the job of the regulators is to restore it.

It was in this context that the PCC considered the Gordon Pate case, and one sentence from its judgement stood out for me, as indicative of the role of our regulator: ‘The Committee considered that you lacked insight and an appreciation of the requirements placed on a registrant in all areas of life, particularly from your comments that the guidance did not relate to you as you only have to adhere to guidance that directly relates to dentistry.’

Read more from Michael Watson:

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