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Tuesday, 1 August, 2000, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Concern over dental controls
Mouthful of white teeth
Shining white teeth in healthy condition
by the BBC's Social Affairs Correspondent, Kim Catcheside

The current dental regulation system may be letting patients down, say patients who are seeking redress for mistakes or fraud.

Many have found that the only way forward is to spend years fighting their cases through the courts.

One case involves "Elaine", who claims her life and career have been shattered by the actions of an incompetent dentist.

He told her she needed major work, including replacing bridge work in her upper mouth. What she didn't know was that she had serious gum disease which should have been treated first.

"He drilled so deeply into my mouth, into my upper jaw. It was incredibly painful. He broke 15 drills, I raised my hand and said stop", Elaine recalls.

Elaine has been left with a few stubs in the roof of her mouth and has to wear ill fitting false teeth. She's a linguist by training, but her speech is so slurred that she can't work.

Dentist works on female patient
Dentist works on female patient

Had Elaine's work been done on the NHS, she could have complained to the local health authority. Private dental work falls outside the NHS complaints system.

Her only option was to go to law and sue the dentist, a time consuming, expensive and stressful business.

Eventually the dentists insurance company agreed to settle out of court and paid her 85,000 in compensation.

Obviously, the successful civil action has no impact on the career of the dentist concerned, who is free to continue practising with no further investigation.

Private dentists are covered by a disciplinary system run by the General Dental Council (GDC).

The GDC has the power to strike off dentists who they find guilty of serious professional misconduct, but in practice they rarely do.

To get erased from the register a dentist must usually be guilty of bodging work on a wide scale over a long period of time - individual mistakes are unlikely to result in such a severe penalty.

According to the GDC's last annual report of 671 complaints, only 21 got as far as a public hearing and only 5 were struck off. Struck-off dentists are also entitled to apply to go back on the register after just ten months.

Dental Association concerns

The British Dental Association, while stressing that the vast majority of dentists practice with no problems, say it has some concerns about the regulation of the remainder.

A spokesperson said: "On the face of it the small number of cases reaching a hearing compared to the large number of complaints would suggest the GDC are not using powers as widely as they could"

The GDC shares their concern, but says the government needs to change the law to give it more powers to act.

"The issue of conduct is protection of the public, not a system of punishing dentists", GDC president Nairn Wilson said.

"We have a whole package of measures, conduct, poorly performing dentists, a whole range of issues. We're working closely with the government and hoping that the government will find the time to make the amendments to the legislation."

The GDC is confident that its pleas are about to be answered, its hoping that next year the government will change the regulations to give it more power to crack down on poorly performing dentists.

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