Reflecting on 2020

dentolegal complaintsJohn Makin, head of the Dental Defence Union, reflects on how we can still learn important lessons from a difficult 2020.

Many dental professionals are used to dealing with high pressure situations, stressful decisions, and anxious patients. But the pandemic has magnified these challenges to an unprecedented level during 2020.

Over the course of the year, there has been a variety of new challenges for the profession to deal with. These include limitations on direct patient contact, an unfamiliar reliance on telephone triage and announcements encouraging dentists and dental care professionals to support the wider NHS.

At the height of the first lockdown, the DDU saw a 130% increase in dental professionals visiting our website for dentolegal advice on areas such as performing remote consultations and returning to the practice safely. While a survey of 224 DDU members found that 68% felt their stress and anxiety levels have increased since the pandemic.

This article explores how the core principles of good practice – effective communication, consideration for others, professionalism and reflectiveness are more important than ever as dental professionals continue to navigate the pandemic.

Communicating effectively with patients

Unfortunately, many practices have a backlog of patients. Many have been unable to progress or complete treatment due to lockdown. And/or the fact that practitioners have only been able to see a limited number of patients since reopening.

The majority of patients have been understanding about the restrictions imposed by the lockdown. But they may not appreciate the difficulties practices continue to face or why their treatment cannot resume.

Consequently, it is important to provide easily accessible and regularly updated information on your website. Patients will then have an understanding of how long appointments should last, the procedures when arriving at the practice, opening times, treatment fees etc.

Patient expectations compared with the reality are the basis for many complaints. But by being aware of these differences and communicating effectively, you can better anticipate concerns and pre-empt trouble.

For example, if you are aware that there are delays for a particular service and this is likely to affect your patient, you should make this clear to them. Manage their expectations, documenting that you have done so.

Dealing with a complaint

Despite the difficult circumstances, practices still need to respond promptly and professionally to any complaint received. As far as possible, keep your approach consistent with your complaints process. And in line with current NHS guidance and GDC standards.

If it is not possible to respond to a complaint within the timescale set out in your complaints process, amend your acknowledgment accordingly so the complainant knows what to expect. Keep the lines of communication well and truly open.

Responding to guidance

The ever-changing nature of the pandemic has resulted in new guidance. A number of different organisations publish the guidance including the GDC, the NHS and the four different CDOs.

With different regions following different guidelines, it is important to keep abreast of the guidelines in your part of the UK.

Check the relevant websites regularly (or delegate this to a trusted colleague), rather than rely on printed information. It’s also a good idea to keep a log so you can demonstrate what you have done to stay up-to-date.

The guidelines are recommendations assist dental professionals with their decision-making process. As opposed to a mandatory Act of Parliament or court ruling. It is up to the individual to consider relevant guidelines and use their professional judgement about how to proceed.

The GDC has reassured dental professionals that while it expects decisions to be informed by current guidance, it ‘won’t be looking to second guess judgements made on [the] basis’ of dentists’ professional judgement.

However, it is still important to document that you’ve taken the guidelines into account. As well as your reasons for departing from them. It is also necessary to demonstrate that your actions were in line with ‘a responsible body of opinion’. In order to defend yourself against a claim.

If you have any concerns or questions about departing from the guidance then contact your dental defence organisation to obtain specific dentolegal advice.

Looking after yourself

The pandemic has had a significant impact on people’s mental health. It is important to consider your own mental wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of your colleagues.

At work, it’s important to take breaks and use leisure time to do something enjoyable to help you relax.

Discuss worries or concerns with trusted friends, family members or colleagues. If you think that your health is suffering, make an appointment to speak to your GP or an occupational health doctor. Don’t self prescribe.

The NHS Practitioner Health Programme (PHP); the Dentist’s Health Support Programme (DHSP); the BDA Benevolent Fund; and the DDU all have additional advice and resources available.

At the DDU, our dentolegal advisers continue to support and advise members about the dental implications of the pandemic. But, while it will be a while before many dental practices can return to normal, it is self-evident that dental professionals have risen magnificently to the many challenges that 2020 has thrown at them.

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