The DDU has long called for regulatory change and this isn't just a predictable howl of protest from an organisation that defends the interests of dental professionals. The GDC itself acknowledges that the current system is unsustainable.
But there is a snag: the GDC does not have the power to implement reforms until the Government has amended the law and the opportunity to do this before the summer parliamentary recess was lost.
This matters because complaints to the GDC have risen by 110% since 2011 and this upward trend looks set to continue. Only a relatively small proportion of complaints are justified, but the regulator still has to determine whether a complaint is within its remit and whether it raises concerns about the dental professional's fitness to practise.
Increased pressure on GDC resources and an outdated, cumbersome process have caused long delays and it can be in excess of a year before FTP procedures come to a conclusion. The GDC has made efforts to streamline its decision-making, but this is unnecessarily stressful for the dental professionals whose livelihood is at risk, as well as the patients who are kept waiting for some kind of resolution. And from a public protection perspective, it makes more sense for concerns about dental professionals to be addressed quickly and effectively.
The current system is also extremely costly. The GDC has said that the average fitness to practise hearing lasts four days and costs £78,000 although hearings can last up to 30 days. And there is the cost of the investigation itself to consider. Little wonder that the GDC’s Annual Retention Fee (ARF) increased by 60% in 2015.
The DDU supports the much-needed reforms proposed by the GDC, which it has estimated will save £2million per year.
At the same time, the cost of defending a GDC case is around £60,000 and the DDU saw a 60% increase in requests from members for help with a GDC investigation in 2014. As a mutual, we must ensure there is enough money in our mutual fund to meet these costs. However, we believe it is unfair that dental professionals should have to pay twice for the inadequacies of the fitness to practise system, through the ARF and their own dental defence subscription.
As you would expect, the DDU supports the much-needed reforms proposed by the GDC, which it has estimated will save £2million per year. They include:
- The introduction of case examiners with powers to conclude a case with no further action, issue a letter of advice or a warning. This role is currently performed by the Investigating Committees.
- A new power to agree undertakings with dental professionals, so concerns about their practice can be properly addressed without the need for a full FTP panel hearing.
Of course these changes are no panacea – for a start, much will depend on the selection and training of new case examiners – but we believe they are a necessary step to make the FTP procedures fit for purpose.
The DDU launched its own campaign to reform the FTP procedure earlier this year and we were delighted by the enthusiastic support we received from dental professionals around the UK who contacted their MP, asking them to request urgent action by the Department of Health. Well over 100 MPs and representatives in other UK jurisdictions should now have received a postcard from a dentist or dental professional constituent.
The summer impasse has been disappointing, not least because it delays the GDC's plans to implement changes in the first half of 2016. However, as MPs return from their summer break, parliamentary time must be found for this essential legislative change.
The DDU will certainly not rest until the government has acted – the case for FTP reform is so clearly in the interests of the profession and the public.