The DDU successfully defends the majority of claims against our members and it is unusual for a case to reach court. But for one dentist whose case went all the way, it was important to take the stand for their reputation and for the good of the profession.
Everything had been going well for the member in their dental career - but out of the blue, a letter of claim threatened to undermine everything they had worked so hard to achieve.
"Being a dentist was something I always wanted to do and I can't think of anything else that would ignite my passion as much,' they say. "The letter of claim was a shock because I had gone through the options in detail with the patient and had no reason to think they were unhappy. Naturally, I was upset and worried about having to go through this as it felt like a massive dent in my career."
Wisely, the member alerted the DDU straight away and was asked to put together all relevant documentation, including the letter and an account of events with reference to the clinical record. "I understood that the DDU was going to use this for my defence if the claim was to go further, but none of us really expected the matter to get to court at that stage."
As months and then years went by, the DDU continued to build the case on the member's behalf, based on information gathered at case conferences with the member and the DDU-funded legal team, as well as expert witness reports. Despite this, the claimant and their solicitors were unwilling to concede any ground, and it would be necessary for a judge to determine whether the dentist had negligently harmed the patient.
"The situation became more and more intense as the case went further," the member recalls. "Obviously, the experience does shake you in the sense that whenever you see a patient you think, 'Could this end up in a claim?' so it is constantly on your mind, for sure. I found it helped to speak to colleagues and friends about what was happening. It was good to get their point of view and it made me feel calmer."
Despite the nerve-wracking prospect of giving evidence, the member and DDU were confident that they could mount a robust defence and convince the judge to dismiss the claim. Seeking to negotiate a settlement in those circumstances would not have been in the interests of the member - and would have set a damaging precedent for the wider profession.
While it was an uncertain and stressful time for the member, they were grateful for the support and expertise of the DDU throughout the process. "I was comfortable with the legal team that represented me, especially my barrister who was very nice and listened to my concerns. Obviously there was a limit to the advice she could give me ahead of the hearing, but I felt like she was on my side. This made a difference because it is an intimidating situation - particularly as the pandemic meant I had to sit by myself during the hearing."
The member was on the witness stand for three hours where they were subjected to sustained examination from the barristers as well as questions from the judge. "Giving evidence for so long was a very nerve-wracking experience, but I knew I had to show that I was a professional and not the person that the claimant was trying to portray me as.
"Trying to jump in or going off at a tangent with my answers would not have helped my case in the slightest, so it was a matter of keeping calm, listening to the questions and taking a couple of seconds before responding. Allowing myself that time to collect my thoughts made all the difference."
The member describes the hearing as an exhausting experience. While they had impressed during their own evidence, they had to listen to the claimant's version of events, as well as the expert witnesses on the questions of breach of duty and causation.
"Thankfully, I don't live far from the court," they say, "so I was able to go home every night. But they were such long days that there was no chance to relax. It was just a matter of eating something, trying to calm down and get ready for the next day, before going to sleep."
After three days, the trial ended in vindication for the member as the judge agreed that their work had been carried out to a reasonable standard, and dismissed the claim. "It was a huge relief for me after the pressure of the previous two years, and achieved thanks to the hard work of the team - so I definitely took time to celebrate the outcome."
Giving evidence for so long was a very nerve-wracking experience, but I knew I had to show that I was a professional and not the person that the claimant was trying to portray me as.
But despite their success, being on the receiving end of a claim has led the member to reflect on the challenges of modern dental practice. "Nobody is perfect and there is always room to improve. The most important thing you can do as a dentist is to stay professional and try to help patients to the best of your ability.
"Unfortunately, not everyone will recognise that you're acting with the best of intentions, but you have to keep a sense of perspective as lots of people are extremely appreciative when you try to help."
"Unfortunately, the feeling that claims are rising is causing a lot of stress. It doesn't help when you see adverts encouraging people to claim against their dentist. It's unfair on caring professionals who are trying to do their best for people, and it will stop dentists being able to work to their full potential because they will constantly feel under pressure.
"So many other dentists are going through what I went through because of the litigious climate we are working in. It's not easy, but I found it helps to separate yourself from the claim and see that it isn't necessarily a reflection of your professionalism or capabilities or technical skills, and is unlikely to damage your professional practice.
"It also helps to have a good support network, including your defence organisation and I thank the DDU for standing by me. Hopefully the result of my case will reduce the likelihood of claims in future and the resulting stress for dentists."
Interview by Susan Field.