In January 2017 the GDC set out its plans for a new approach to regulation in its Shifting the Balance discussion paper. On behalf of our members, the DDU welcomed many aspects of this approach to easing the fitness to practise burden on the profession, and as stakeholders we continue to engage with the GDC to make this a reality. A little over a year and a half later, I'm pleased to see some positive signs of the changes.
The GDC's recent annual report reveals that there has been a 27% decrease in the total number of complaints received, from 2,630 in 2016 to 1,910, in 2017. It is too early to say whether this is because of the better signposting of patients to where it is most appropriate to make their complaint, but it is welcome news nonetheless.
Additionally, the introduction of case examiners as a replacement for the former investigating committee has resulted in a significant fall in the number of cases that proceeded to a hearing, from 45% in 2016 to 31% in 2017, with resulting reductions in costs, both human and financial.
Overall, the GDC reveals that of a typical 100 cases in 2017, 36% are closed at triage stage, 24% at the assessment stage, 26% at the investigating committee or case examiner stage and 14% are referred to a practice committee.
Unfortunately that is largely where the good news ends. The report also reveals that some 35% of cases took more than six months to be considered at the investigation stage, and more than 50% of those sent forward to a hearing took in excess of a further nine months to reach an outcome.
It cannot be in the public interest for significant numbers of patients to be treated by dental professionals who, for months on end, are subject to the stress and anxiety that come as the inevitable consequence of a fitness to practise investigation - or for those colleagues to have their careers effectively on hold during this time.
Our engagement with the GDC is in both general terms - contributing to its complaints handling initiative, for example, or commenting on changes to its rules and raising points of principle - and in specific cases, where one of our members will be supported by our instructed solicitor and one of our dentally qualified dento-legal advisers.
As laid out in our annual report, in 2017 the DDU supported members with 11,000 requests for advice and assistance, including the opening of over 3,000 new case files and 8,000 calls to our dento-legal advice line. But to keep things in perspective it is important to bear in mind that the vast majority of these were quickly resolved with immediate advice and support over the phone, or with advice followed by a letter of response to conclude a patient complaint at an early stage.
While we are on the subject, I would once again like to dispel the myth that DDU members could be disadvantaged if they ask for our help. Offering expert dento-legal advice is one of our core services and we answer thousands of calls to our advice-line every year, helping members avoid potential issues and mitigate problems that have already arisen.
Members should call us at any time if they need pre-emptive advice on how to manage or avoid a problem, or guidance on what to do if something has gone wrong.
It would make no sense to penalise or discourage this, and members should call us at any time if they need pre-emptive advice on how to manage or avoid a problem, or guidance on what to do if something has gone wrong. We very positively encourage members to contact us whenever they need our input - and remember, doing so does not affect future subscriptions.
GDC investigations do, of course, remain a large and important part of our work. Working with our dedicated team of in-house solicitors, we aim to robustly and successfully defend our members and their reputations. Where possible and appropriate, we will seek to prove that there is no case to answer early on in an investigation, to spare members the distress of a public hearing.
Our results for 2017 show the extent to which we achieved this goal; in cases where our in-house solicitors assisted dental members at the case examiner/investigating committee stage, only 19% resulted in a referral to one of the GDC's FTP committees. This contrasts very favourably with the comparable overall figure of 38% in the GDC's annual report.
Further in-house solicitor support and intervention meant that 41 % of those cases sent forward to a hearing were actually concluded before the hearing itself. Of those that did proceed, just 43% had a finding of impairment - compared to 72%* at the GDC overall.
As a DDU member, whether you simply want to call for immediate advice or reassurance, or have a serious significant matter that requires our advice and support in the longer term, never hesitate to contact us. We exist to guide, support and defend our members. You are the reason we're here.