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Breaking through the fear factor: a growing litigious culture in dentistry

Blog Author Rob Chaffe

Blog Date 09/10/2015

​At the Young Dentist Committee, we've been sharing stories heard from newly-qualified dentists who tell us they are afraid of extracting teeth. They are concerned about the risk of the procedure going wrong, the worry about breaking a tooth, the fear of patient reporting you to the General Dental Council, and the perceived lack of support from principals. The thought of a career in tatters seems to be petrifying the next generation of dentists.


To some extent it is true: litigation is becoming an increasing problem in the UK, patients' expectations are rising, people are more savvy about where they can complain and aren't as afraid to do it, as perhaps they were in the past. Aggressive advertising and marketing by 'no win, no fee' legal firms are not helping.


But are these young dentists' fears backed really backed up by the cold light of day? The statistics seem to say otherwise, it appears that most litigation stems from communications break-down, rather than clinical mistakes, such as fracturing teeth.


How to be bulletproof: take responsibility for your skills

I think it's important that younger colleagues are supported to treat their patients, they need appropriate guidance when they are unsure and support from trainers or more established colleagues to build up their skills. If you are an undergraduate, I recommend that you embrace electives that boost your skills in challenging environments to boost confidence.


I think one of the most important qualities you need as a young dentist is to be able to push yourself: when you go into your vocational training (and even whilst doing your undergraduate course), do as much of every treatment as possible, not just the things you are good at. Find out which areas you need to improve in, ask the advice of your trainers or mentors: don't avoid the stuff you find challenging, because you will need to be able to do a bit of everything and your patients will expect you to be competent at it.


Developing your skills: be patient-focused

The statistics prove that if you treat your patients with respect, they will do the same to you, even if the treatment doesn't go to plan, as you will have demonstrated that you have their best interests at heart. I remember when I was in dental schools, that workshops on communications seemed a bit obvious and dull, but don't over-estimate the power of having the skills and ability to be able to listen and explain things to your patients, as this will gain their trust and confidence.


Take responsibility for your ongoing learning too, I recently attended a free course by a dental indemnifier which gave some top tips on avoiding litigation. Their conclusions were to learn how to talk to patients and to learn to prevent challenges before they arise. They pointed out that many patients now view themselves as 'consumers' rather than patients, and as dentists, we need to be mindful of this when thinking about how we manage their expectations realistically.


Fight the fear: get smart

So my message to young dentists is: don't fear breaking a tooth, a failed endo or crown not fitting, as it has happened to us all. Go out there and provide all the care you can, and embrace learning and gaps in knowledge base, as lifelong learning is improving the skills of us all in our profession. Learn how to communicate with your patients by being a respectful, caring, empathic dentist and this will help bulletproof you against litigation, rather than just avoiding doing the treatment in the first place.


Mistakes and breaking teeth will occur, it's the process of learning and getting better. It's how you manage the problems and mistakes that will define whether you go down the path of litigation or whether you get a big thank you from a patient who will really appreciates you solving their problem.


Rob Chaffe

Member, BDA Young Dentist Committee


About the Young Dentists' Committee

The BDA's Young Dentists Committee focuses on the needs of young dentists during their early careers. It aims to increase the representation of young dentists on key decision-making organisations that impact on dentistry and ensure young dentists have a voice.


Supporting your career development

Have you joined your local BDA branch/section? They meet regularly and offer opportunities to network with colleagues, find mentors and enhance your skills.


Come along to the BDA and the UCL Eastman Institute's Careers Day 2016 in London on 12 February 2016 to explore your career development options.


Take a look at our resources on developing your skills.