Dental Leadership Network event – ‘we have a lot more work to do’, says GDC

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From the impact of social media to the role and purpose of GDC regulation, the health and wellbeing focus of the latest Dental Leadership Network was well and truly examined, writes Gaby Bissett.

Dental experts from across the UK came together at Woburn House, London, on Wednesday 12 June for the Dental Leadership Network event.

Convened by the General Dental Council (GDC), the event revolved around the role of dental leaders in supporting the health and wellbeing of the dental community.

The day kicked off with a welcome and introduction, closely followed by a presentation titled: From surviving to thriving: managing a chronic health condition in dentistry. Led by Zain Hameed, dental core trainee and DLN working group member, he focused on the challenges experienced by staff members who work in dentistry with a chronic illness.

Safiyyah Yacoobali and Sophia Morris, from the Diversity in Dentistry Action Group, delivered a presentation on inclusion and belonging in the workplace.

‘I don’t agree that fixing NHS dentistry is all about throwing money at it. I think it’s more about feeling valued, having a sense of belonging and a greater purpose.’

Nishma Sharma, dentist

Dentist Nishma Sharma, who attended the event, said the talk highlighted that there’s a ‘long way to go’ when it comes to compassion in dentistry.

We think in order to be a compassionate leader, you must also be inclusive as well, so you can’t have compassion without that inclusivity,’ she said.

‘Compassionate leadership is a leadership that focuses on relationships, and that’s done via listening, understanding, empathising with and supporting those who you are leading. This enables them to feel valued, respected and cared for, so that they can reach their full potential.

‘Using that definition, I think it’s very clear that the NHS is not a compassionate leader. I think the morale on the ground is at an all time low.

‘Colleagues feel undervalued, they feel stressed. Their mental health is not being addressed, and they do not feel valued. So they burn out and they walk away.

‘I don’t agree that fixing NHS dentistry is all about throwing money at it. I think it’s more about feeling valued, having a sense of belonging and a greater purpose.

‘I think there is a long way to go for those in leadership positions.’

Topics tackled

The first panel discussion kicked off just before lunchtime, focusing on the importance of mental wellness in the workplace.

The speakers tackled difficult topics, with audience members submitting questions, including the impact of fitness to practise (FtP) procedures, ‘blue-on-blue’ complaints and dental nursing support.

Neena Manek, dentolegal adviser at MDDUS, stressed the importance of case backlogs being solved.

‘The whole dental team is absolutely terrified,’ she said, describing an incident where she said a case took eight months to be considered.

She stressed that it is not just FtP cases, citing the Saving Grace campaign and the issue of DCPs being struck off due to missing CPD submission deadlines.

‘We have a lot more work to do. We are not there yet. But we have taken action in a number of areas…I don’t want FtP to be the elephant in the room.’

Theresa Thorp, executive director of regulation at the GDC

Theresa Thorp, executive director of regulation for the GDC, acknowledged that FtP cases are ‘very stressful for everyone involved’.

She said: ‘We have a lot more work to do. We are not there yet. But we have taken action in a number of areas…it is something we need to tackle together.’

‘I don’t want FtP to be the elephant in the room,’ she added.

She listed a number of changes, including adjusting the tone of voice when communicating to make procedures ‘less legalistic’.

She also described dentistry as an ‘extraordinarily compliant’ profession, adding: ‘Regulation is much broader than FtP. Ftp is the “sharp end” of regulation.’

High expectations

Ending on a positive note, Wendy Duncan, British Association of Dental Therapists (BADT) council member, said: ‘There is a clear pathway [for mental wellbeing] now, not just a DIY approach.’

Catherine Tannahill, director of clinician engagement for Portman Dentex, emphasised the importance of dental teams simply asking each other how they are.

Following a buffet lunch, Mahrukh Khwaja, founder of Mind Ninja, shared her wisdom with the room. She explained how dental leaders can help to build team and individual resilience.

The next panel discussion centred on the idea that a healthy dental team leads to good patient care.

Clinician Ian Wilson has helped to bring awareness on emotional intelligence within the dental workplace. He spoke of the ‘fabrication of dental excellence’ that can come through social media.

Panel members agreed that dental clinicians put high expectations on themselves. Mark O’Hagan, director of people and OD at Community Dental Services (CIC), added that pressures can make them ‘self critical’. The panel agreed that dentistry, in fact, has a lot to be proud of – it is a profession that gives meaning.

Understanding pressures

Wrapping up the event was a speech from Tom Whiting, the new chief executive officer of the GDC.

He laid out his five priorities as incoming chief executive:

  1. Be clear on context and purpose
  2. Look at ourselves from the outside, in
  3. Be a learning organisation and help others to learn too
  4. Engage, listen and respond to perceptions
  5. Build partnerships.

He told attendees that he intends to get out on regular frontline visits to meet students, professionals and providers. ‘Dialogue matters but also to understand practice and pressures and to help shape our work,’ he said.

Speaking about the day, Yvonne Shaw, deputy dental director at Dental Protection, said: ‘It’s been incredibly valuable to engage with other organisations and colleagues representing all members of the dental profession to understand what is impacting their teams.

‘One of the points that stood out was remembering the power of saying ‘thank you’ and how something so simple can make such a positive difference to performance and morale.

‘We have got a long way to go in providing full well-being support across the entire profession but we’re on the journey and that’s really encouraging.’

The next Dental Leadership Network event will take place on 12 November 2024.

Editor’s view

From the impact of social media to the role and purpose of GDC regulation, the health and wellbeing focus of the latest Dental Leadership Network was well and truly examined last week.

It is something that in 2024, key dental leaders can gather in a room for a day to discuss, deliberate and, for the most part, all agree that there’s a pressing need to address the mental wellbeing of the profession. 

As the BADT’s Wendy Duncan said, it is fantastic that the days of DIY solutions are behind us and, thanks to the work of some wonderful people and organisations, tools and pathways are available for wellbeing support in dentistry.

However, the stand out message from the day was that there is still work to be done. 

Theresa Thorp, the GDC’s executive director of regulation, said she did not want FtP ‘to be the elephant in the room’. But whilst its discussion was not avoided, it took up a lot of space during the panel discussion on mental wellness.

Action has been taken by the GDC in recent months. A pilot to ‘improve proportionality and timeliness’ of fitness to practise processes, for example, has been extended to October 2024. 

The changes included limiting the evidence collected to that which is specifically required for the investigation. By the end of April, the pilot had opened 127 cases, of which only eight were referred to a case examiner and the remainder closed. The average time to complete the cases was 12 weeks.

But for many, this does not go far enough and the hard part is that there’s no overnight solution to improving wellbeing. As MDDUS’s Neena Manek said: ‘We are being more optimistic. We just need to keep going.’

Walking away from the event, however, I couldn’t help feeling a degree of relief that so many voices in dentistry feel able to voice the day-to-day struggles of both themselves and their colleagues – and are pushing for change.

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