The bridge between dentistry and the law

bridging the gap between dental and lawDentistry talks to Sarah Ide, Debbie Herbst and Eric Easson about their experiences as dentolegal advisers.

What is a dentolegal adviser?

Sarah Ide (SI): A Dental Defence Union (DDU) dentolegal adviser (DLA) is an experienced dentist with further training and understanding of assisting dental professionals with complaints, regulatory matters and other ethical and legal issues that crop up in relation to our members’ daily work. They act as a bridge between dentists and the legal process.

Debbie Herbst (DH): A DLA provides support, advice and assistance to dental registrant colleagues. It aids in a wide variety of matters relating to their ethical and professional responsibilities. DLAs are experienced dentists who work closely with other colleagues, such as the legal or media teams. They protect members’ interests and resolve issues in a timely way.

What is your dental background?

SI: I qualified in 1992, working as a house officer in hospital before undertaking vocational training in general dental practice. I continued to work in general practice for 26 years, completing an MSc in aesthetic dentistry in 2014. I now work full time as a DLA.

DH: After qualifying and completing vocational training, I worked in salaried dental services in London and Yorkshire. I treated children and patients with special needs who were unable to access care in general dental practice. My interest in community dental health led me to pursue further qualifications. I latterly worked as a senior dental officer in dental public health. Then, I joined the DDU’s dental claims handling team in 2007. I moved to the dental advisory team in 2013.

Eric Easson (EE): I have been qualified for 17 years. I have worked in a variety of NHS and private practice settings. For 14 years, I have been a clinical teaching fellow at Manchester University Dental Hospital. I still work part-time in practice and at the university.

Why did you decide to become a DLA?

DH: My background in clinical dentistry and interest in dental health goes beyond the dental practice setting. This led me to seek to utilise my experience in a different field.

As a member of the BDA’s Central Committee in community and public health dentistry, I knew I had a wider knowledge and appreciation of the broader issues facing my colleagues.

My initial role as a dental-claims handler in the DDU was as interesting as I had anticipated. However my role as a DLA provides a challenge. It presents a variety of work which is hugely satisfying and rewarding.    

EE: I had the good fortune to work alongside a principal who worked as a DLA with one of the main indemnifiers and someone who was a highly-regarded expert witness. Both inspired me and suggested a number of training courses for me to become a DLA.

Did you have to undertake any further training to become a DLA?

DH: The DDU’s selection process included thorough assessment of the experience. Also, competencies required for the role in supporting and advising members.

In my previous role with the DDU as a dental-claims handler, I took part in the DDU’s telephone advice service. When I joined the DLA team, I underwent a lengthy period of intensive supervision and training with various colleagues whilst I gradually took on my own advisory cases.

The ongoing sharing of knowledge and experience within the team continues every day, in order to best support and assist our members.

SI: The DDU has an in-house training programme for all new DLAs. This included an intensive period of on-the-job training in the London office. Then, followed by a period of mentoring and peer support. This gave me the opportunity to learn directly from my colleagues and better understand the role.

I find that each day brings new areas into focus and I work collaboratively with the team to consider the best interests of our members.

We also have study days on a variety of both clinical and dentolegal topics to ensure that we continually keep up-to-date. We are never complacent. Just like in practice, the learning is continuous, with CPD tailored to the role.

How has being a dentist helped shape your work as a DLA?

SI: It is absolutely fundamental to the role. Without being a dentist, it would be impossible to fully assess a particular matter. I am extremely aware of the stress and pressure associated with every day practice. So, I approach situations with empathy and understanding.

DH: In my view, being a dentist is a pre-requisite for my role.  My experience in practice means that I am able to identify with many of the problems and dilemmas our members face. Members often say how reassured they feel to know they are being supported by a colleague who appreciates their position, and who may have experienced the very concern or problem with which they need support and assistance.

What are the most important personal qualities to be a DLA? 

SI: Organisation, good listening, strong communication skills and the ability to analyse, process and understand extensive information. It is also very important to be able to empathise whilst providing appropriate advice and guidance.

DH: You need the genuine wish to support DDU member colleagues, so I would say empathy. On a practical level, being able to accurately manage and assess information received, and provide appropriate advice to members is essential. Good verbal and written communication skills are important. 

EE: In order to do the job well, you need organisational skills, the willingness to go the extra mile and to prioritise the people you are helping. Additionally, being non-judgemental is perhaps one of the most important qualities and to support members so that they do not feel alone. 

What does a typical day look like in this role?

DH: A typical day (if there is one!) involves dealing with a caseload of dental advisory files. Both existing cases and new matters are allocated daily, together with taking calls on the DDU’s telephone advice line.

The DDU offers 24-hour advisory support and DLAs take part in a rota to extend telephone advice out of office hours.

Advisory files may involve telephone or face-to-face conversations and meetings with members and other colleagues as required.

EE: Every day is different! Cases are allocated every day. They range from helping members deal with complaints to regulatory matters. It may be possible to resolve an issue by means of a single phone call or a case may run for many months, or even years.

Either way, it is really rewarding to support colleagues in their hour of need. We also provide lectures when requested and write articles with the media department to provide advice on relevant topics.

What are the best and worst aspects of being a DLA?

EE: It is rewarding to help someone face a difficulty and find a way to resolve the matter. If there is a robust defence for a case, I like nothing more than helping to draft a response to which there can be little argument over the integrity of the member.

However, the downside is that it can be heartbreaking seeing an obviously conscientious dentist go through the long periods of stress and have their confidence undermined by a case. After being in the job for a short time, you soon realise it can happen to anyone of us, at any time.

This article first appeared in Dentistry magazine. You can read the latest issue here.

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