Reducing the dento-legal burden during the pandemic

Certain complaint handling and regulatory investigations have been paused or amended during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Practices across the country are rising to the challenge of providing essential dental care to patients during the COVID-19 emergency. But this is uncharted territory, with new guidance being regularly updated.

Recognising the need to lessen the dento-legal burden on dental professionals in the current situation, NHS complaints procedures in England and Northern Ireland have been paused, and the ombudsmen and GDC have also amended their processes.

Communicating with patients

So how will this impact you during the pandemic? With routine dental treatment being on hold at the time of writing, patients may be disappointed to find their appointments postponed and complaints may arise. Good communication by your practice will help avoid misunderstandings.

If you haven't already, update your website and practice answerphone messages to explain the measures you have taken to safeguard patient safety and explain how your patients can access dental services during the coronavirus pandemic. This should be in line with the guidance from the relevant CDO and local arrangements, so if a patient does complain, you can explain that you're following official guidelines designed to safeguard their health.

The GDC has reassured practitioners, saying: "Refusing to treat a patient when it is not safe to do so is a perfectly proper professional judgement, which we would not look to question."

Complaints procedures

Complaints must still be acknowledged. This includes verbal complaints, which should be logged and dealt with if possible. However, it's recognised there may be delays in responding to concerns about NHS treatment that don't require urgent action. Of course, if a complaint is relatively straightforward to resolve, by acknowledging what happened and apologising, then you should still do so.

For NHS complaints that reach the ombudsmen, new complaints may not be progressed unless they relate to essential issues and existing complaints may also not progress.

GDC investigations

If you are involved in a GDC fitness to practise investigation, it may be of some comfort to know that the GDC had pledged to keep requests for information to a minimum and to take "a pragmatic and reasonable approach" to investigations. Although the GDC will not halt all investigations during the COVID-19 outbreak, the GDC has said that it does not want fitness to practise cases to be a distraction for dental professionals.

Almost all fitness to practise hearings are being postponed, except in a small number of cases where there is an immediate perceived risk to patient safety. These hearings will be run remotely where possible.

This guidance was correct at publication 19/05/2020. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Sarah Ide

by Dr Sarah Ide

Sarah qualified from Guy's Hospital in 1992. Following house officer positions at Guy's she then entered general practice. She has an MSc in aesthetic dentistry from King's, and has recently given up part-time clinical practice in order to concentrate on a full-time role as a dento-legal advisor at the DDU.

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