May Day used to be marked in Oxford by some students jumping off the Magdalen College Bridge into the River Cherwell. Health and Safety have in recent years closed the bridge to prevent serious injury as the water under the bridge is only two feet deep there.
For the dental profession this year, May 1 is the occasion when hygienists and therapists especially can take the plunge and see patients direct, without their having to see a dentist first.
But how deep is the water under this particular bridge? Will it be so shallow that someone is injured? Or so deep that some who try it find themselves out of their depth? Hygienists, naturally, have welcomed the change. Last week health minister, Earl Howe, described it as ‘something which will enhance, rather than detract from, the team approach’.
Others in the team are not so sure. The British Dental Association (BDA) described the decision as ‘misguided. Its statement warned: ‘to allow dental hygienists and therapists to treat patients without prescription from a dentist undermines best practice in patient care.’
But isn’t that a bit hypocritical I thought as I wandered around the BDA conference last week? There many of them were sporting the latest in designer spectacles, prescribed not by a doctor but an optometrist.
According to the NHS Choices website, optometrists are trained to ‘recognise, treat and manage abnormalities and signs of some, but not all, eye diseases’. They examine the eyes to detect diseases like glaucoma, macular degeneration, and cataracts. The advice continues: ‘They can also prescribe eye exercises, undertake vision therapy, and, if trained to do so, prescribe medications to treat eye diseases’.
Translated across to dentistry, such a description could well be applied to dental hygienists and therapists.
They too are trained to detect and treat ‘abnormalities and signs’ of diseases of the mouth. Hygienists and therapists, like optometrists, can refer on cases that are beyond their scope of practice.
I have personal experience of being referred for cataract surgery, not by my doctor, but by an optometrist, whose professionalism I respect. Isn’t May day the time for dentists and the BDA to show similar respect for dental care professionals who can now see patients directly.