The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is calling on the General Dental Council (GDC) to review and urgently remove restrictions on direct patient access to dental care professionals.
The exact nature of how direct access is implemented is a matter for the GDC to decide, but the OFT is expecting the regulatory body to implement ‘appropriate changes without further delay’ and cost to both patients and the dental profession.
The OFT suggested it was pleased that the GDC has recently initiated a review of these restrictions, but will closely monitor the outcome of the GDC’s review of direct access.
It will also review its position and consider the appropriate course of action once the GDC has made a decision following the conclusion of its review in spring 2013.
Other findings in the investigation into the UK dental market also found that ‘it is not always working in the best interests of patients’.
The OFT study found that patients have insufficient information to make informed decisions about their choice of dentist and the dental treatments they receive.
It called on the British Dental Association to develop a ‘a robust and effective code of practice covering the sale of dental payment plans’ in response to findings of ‘potential pressure selling by dentists’.
A new survey conducted as part of the study suggests that each year around 500,000 patients could be provided with inaccurate information by dentists regarding their entitlement to receive particular dental treatments on the NHS.
As a result, they may pay more to receive private dental treatment.
The report also raises concerns about continued restrictions preventing patients from directly accessing dental care professionals, such as hygienists, without a referral from a dentist. The OFT considers these restrictions to be unjustified and likely to reduce patient choice and dampen competition.
The OFT also highlights concerns with the current NHS dental contracts in England.
As the majority of these contracts are not time-limited, and only a small volume of new contracts are put out to tender each year, it is extremely difficult for new dental practices to be established – and successful dental practices which offer a higher quality of service to NHS patients are prevented from expanding.
Other issues of concern highlighted in the report include the complexity of the complaints process for patients and instances of potential pressure selling by dentists of dental payment plans.
The OFT has identified a wide-ranging package of recommendations to address these concerns, which includes:
• Provision of clear, accurate and timely information for patients – the OFT is calling on NHS commissioning bodies, the General Dental Council and the Care Quality Commission to be proactive in enforcing existing rules which require dentists and dental practices to provide timely, clear and accurate information to patients about prices and available dental treatments.
• Direct patient access to dental care professionals – the OFT urges the GDC to remove restrictions preventing patients from making appointments to see dental hygienists, dental therapists and clinical dental technicians directly, as soon as possible.
• Reform of the NHS dental contract in England – the OFT is urging the Department of Health to redesign the NHS dental contract to facilitate easier entry into the market by new dental practices and allow successful practices to expand. The OFT is not convinced that indefinite contracts to supply NHS dentistry are in the best interests of patients.
• Simplification of the complaints process – the OFT considers that the current system should be reformed to make it simpler, easier and less time consuming for patients and dentists to resolve complaints.
• Sale of dental plans – following discussion with the OFT, the British Dental Association has agreed to develop a robust and effective code of practice covering the sale of dental payment plans.
John Fingleton, OFT chief executive, said: ‘Our study has raised significant concerns about the UK dentistry market which need to be tackled quickly in the interest of patients. All too often patients lack access to the information they need, for example when choosing a dentist or when getting dental treatment. We also unearthed evidence that some patients may be receiving deliberately inaccurate information about their entitlement to NHS dental treatment, and we expect to see robust action taken against such potential misconduct by dentists.’
‘This study has also highlighted that the current NHS dental contract in England may well not be working in the best interests of patients, and that regulations unjustifiably restrict patients from getting direct access to dental care professionals like hygienists. Reform in both these areas is needed without delay.’