What can 2020 teach us?

John Makin 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. However, the pandemic magnified these challenges to an unprecedented level during 2020. 

Over the course of last year, there was a variety of new challenges for the profession to deal with. This included 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. Particularly on areas such as performing remote consultations and returning to the practice safely.

Furthermore, a survey of 224 DDU members found that 68% felt they have increased stress levels since the pandemic.

This article explores the core principles of good practice. These are effective communication, consideration for others, professionalism and reflectiveness. These principles 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. People who have been unable to progress or complete treatment due to lockdown. 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. Although, 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 should have an understanding of how long appointments should last. Also, the procedures when arriving at the practice, opening times, treatment fees etc. 

Patient expectations compared with the reality are the basis for many complaints.  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 your patient is likely to be affected by this, you should make this clear to them and 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, your approach should be consistent with your published complaints process. It should be in line with current NHS guidance and General Dental Council (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 and keep the lines of communication well and truly open.

Responding to guidance

The ever-changing nature of the pandemic has resulted in new guidance being published by a number of different organisations. This includes the GDC, the NHS and from the four different chief dental officers.

Different regions are following different guidelines. Therefore, 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). Don’t rely on printed information that may quickly become outdated. 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 that are designed to assist dental professionals with their decision-making process. 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 and your reasons for departing from them. It would also be necessary to demonstrate that your actions were in line with ‘a responsible body of opinion’ at the time 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 and it is important to consider your own mental wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of your colleagues.

At work, it is important to take breaks. Use leisure time to do something enjoyable to distract you and help you relax.

Discuss worries or concerns with trusted friends, family members or colleagues and if you think that your health is suffering, make an appointment to speak to your general practitioner or an occupational health doctor and don’t self-prescribe.

The NHS Practitioner Health Programme, the Dentist’s Health Support Programme, 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 threw at them.

To learn more, visit www.theddu.com.

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

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