The Department of Health (DH) will review whether the much-criticised inspections by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) have worked satisfactorily.
If they decide that weaknesses remain, dental practices could also be brought under the remit of Monitor, a second big health watchdog.
The prospect is likely to fill many dentists with alarm, even though the shake-up would involve ‘a single application process’, the DH has said.
Compulsory registration with the CQC, from last April, triggered protests because of a chaotic introduction, the cost and complaints that it involves excessive red tape.
Furthermore, the plan for joint regulation by Monitor and CQC – currently earmarked for foundation trust hospitals only – has been heavily criticised by a committee of MPs.
A report by the Tory-led health select committee, this month, warned the ‘parallel roles’ could result in confusion and either duplication – or gaps – in regulation.
And it highlighted how the scandal at Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, where hundreds of patients died unnecessarily, between 2005 and 2008, had heightened concern.
The report concluded: ‘We remain concerned that the parallel roles of Monitor and the CQC create significant scope for confusion, which could result in either regulatory lacunae or regulatory duplication – or both.
‘The government needs to clarify the roles of the two organisations; we further recommend that this review should be undertaken as a matter of urgency in the light of…. events at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.’
At present, dental practices – along with non-foundation trust hospitals, GPs and independent ambulance services – are exempt from regulation by Monitor.
Exemptions were granted either because providers are small, or because, in the committee’s words, ‘there exist other bodies able to address failings’.
However, its report said: ‘The government intends to review the operation of provider licensing during the next Parliament and consider whether any initially exempt group of providers needs to be brought within the scope of licensing.’
Asked whether Monitor could regulate dentists, a DH spokeswoman said: ‘There will be a review of the licensing system for dentists in the next Parliament.’
Dentistry revealed last month that almost 100 dental practices are now being inspected every week, with the CQC regime in full swing.
The organisation checked a total of 3,469 surgeries in the first eight-and-a-half months of the 2012-13 financial year.
By Rob Merrick, Parliamentary Correspondent