This is a personally poignant moment because it is my final editorial as I step aside as head of the DDU.
Over 17 years at the helm, I have used many of these columns to reflect on the rising trend in claims and complaints which bear little relation to the skilled and conscientious care provided by dental professionals. The dento-legal climate remains a cause of frustration but I'd like to end on a more upbeat note.
And there are some reasons to be genuinely optimistic about the future. In the first place, legislation to reform the GDC's outdated fitness to practise procedures was finally laid before Parliament in mid-November. It has been a long wait but I'm confident the proposed changes (which you can read about here) will make the process more efficient and fairer to dental professionals, without compromising patient safety.
I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the members who supported our campaign for change, especially those who sent postcards to their MP about the issue. I'm in no doubt that your voices played a part in expediting Government action.
I have also been encouraged by the GDC's interim efforts to make FTP operate more efficiently and proportionately. We have noted that turnaround times have been improving and there seems to be a greater readiness to redirect complaints at an earlier stage when they do not raise concerns about a dental professional's fitness to practice.
Another positive development is the Government's proposal to introduce fixed recoverable costs for clinical negligence claims up to £250,000 (the vast majority of dental claims are below this threshold). This is welcome because despite efforts to reform the civil litigation system in 2013, the claimant's legal costs are often grossly disproportionate when a claim has to be settled.
Patients should receive fair compensation when they are negligently harmed but it's not uncommon for a claimant to be awarded £5,000 and their solicitors to submit a costs bill for £30,000. Excessive legal costs are one factor driving up claims inflation, a concern for every member who contributes to our mutual fund. There are no guarantees, but the measure would be an important step towards a fairer claims system. Meanwhile our repudiation rates for claims have improved dramatically, and we are now successfully defending 60% of the claims reported to us by members.
There are no guarantees, but the measure would be an important step towards a fairer claims system.
Finally, I'm confident that the DDU has the resources and expertise to help dental professionals when they need us most, starting with our dento-legal helpline which gets busier each year. It's clear you value an early opportunity to talk to an adviser about dento-legal matters and we see the service as the frontline in our effort to pre-empt the kinds of problems that result in a complaint or claim. Unlimited access to the helpline is included in your annual subscription and I encourage you to call us as frequently as you need. To this end, we have recently extended our core opening hours to 8am-6pm so it is easier to contact us, and of course those with urgent queries can call us 24 hours a day.
Looking back on nearly three decades as a dento-legal adviser, the nature of dental practice has changed dramatically. Today's dental professionals have high levels of technical skill and their treatment can transform people's lives. But at the same time they are under pressure because of growing patient expectations, increased scrutiny by different regulators and the complex ethical and legal dilemmas they encounter every day.
The DDU has adapted to this landscape by investing in new services such as the employment law helpline and by recruiting a growing team of knowledgeable advisers, claims handlers and solicitors. Although I am moving on, it's reassuring to know that the DDU can be relied on as a continuing source of support for members in years to come.