John Chope column

John Chope considers the difficulties of representing patients’ interests at the GDC.

 

Who speaks for patients?

 

The bulk of the GDC’s work is directed towards providing patients with reassurance that the standard of their dental care is satisfactory. The definition of what is meant by satisfactory will evolve with time, reflecting a meld of the professionals’ self-imposed standards and aspirations for their patients and the patient’s own expectations and demands. The patient’s view comes from a number of sources.

There are lay members within the Council who provide a well informed and invaluable balance to debates. However, because they are drawn from the same well of educated and articulate volunteers as the professional members there are bound to be many blind spots within the Council itself.

The GDC is aware of these gaps and it attempts to fill some of them by means of public consultation. All significant GDC decisions are informed by this process which involves the Council asking questions about the issues on its public website and also circulating the organisations on its stakeholder list.

Many of these consultations elicit extremely helpful and well-reasoned arguments. But because ‘public consultation’ is now the politically correct currency for many government and quango decisions it is in danger of becoming a devalued process. Sceptics see it reduced to a somewhat ornamental procedure whilst cynics imagine it providing a veil of legitimacy behind which the great, the good and the ‘we-know-best’ brigade stick to their guns and press on regardless.

Many organisations are becoming so pestered by the plethora of public consultations that an understandable weariness has set in, resulting in a reluctance to cast more than a cursory glance or proffer more than a token response.

This consultation fatigue is recognised at the GDC, prompting it to commission a consultant to develop proposals on how public and patient involvement can be improved. The various suggestions, all targeted at either providing feedback on the work of the Council or at increasing the flow of views and opinions of patients will be tabled in November.

As nature abhors a vacuum, it is not surprising that government, in the absence of a convincing alternative, has taken on the mantle of arbiter of patients’ needs itself. Unfortunately politicians are unable to distinguish between patients’ interests and political expediency. And so when the GDC feels the heavy hand of the politician on its shoulder, hopefully, in the future the Council will find itself in a much stronger position, with both the evidence and the confidence to speak up for the patients it is committed to protect.

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