The DDU, the specialist division of the Medical Defence Union (MDU), saw a 32% increase in dental claims files and a 12.5% increase in dental advisory files opened in 2012.
The figures are revealed in today's publication of the MDU's Annual Report for 2012. The increase in dental advisory cases opened is mostly driven by a rise in complaints, including to the dental professional or practice direct, to the NHS primary care organisation, the Ombudsman and the Dental Complaints Service.
The DDU has employed additional staff across its advisory, legal and claims departments to help its members in the increasingly hostile climate.
Rupert Hoppenbrouwers, head of the DDU, said: 'There are no indications that the current dento-legal position, where dentists are subject to rising complaints and claims in a highly regulated environment, will ease in the near future. It is difficult to identify what lies behind the increase in complaints as there is no evidence that clinical standards are slipping. But we live in a consumer society which demands high levels of customer service and accountability when things go wrong.
'Looking at negligence claims, legal changes came into effect on 1 April 2013 which may result in a reduction in the fees claimant's lawyers can charge. Before that deadline we saw a steep rise in dental claims being notified to us by our members. This is attributable to claimant's lawyers getting claims in under the previous conditional fee arrangements, which were more favourable for them.
'We hope these legal reforms will achieve the aim of reducing claimants’ costs while still providing patients with access to justice if they believe they have been negligently harmed.
'Members who put their trust in us can be reassured by our proven record of success. We successfully defend around half of dental claims where the dental professional faces allegations of negligence and a demand for compensation. Over 90% of members facing GDC complaints, when represented by one of our in-house solicitors, do not reach a fitness to practise hearing.'
The annual report includes a number of examples of cases in which the DDU has helped members including:
- A complaint against a dentist which was successfully defended at a Dental Complaints Service panel hearing after a patient complained that she needed root canal treatment on a tooth that was fitted with a crown. The dentist had previously carried out £900 of treatment free of charge, as a gesture of goodwill.
- A dentist who received a claim from a patient who was a heavy smoker and whose implants had failed. The DDU successfully defended the claim on the basis that the patient had not followed oral hygiene instructions and wasn't motivated to stop smoking and this had increased her susceptibility to periodontal disease.
- A dentist whose patient made a claim that she had not been adequately warned about the possibility of nerve damage when she had her wisdom tooth extracted and that she should have been referred to a specialist. The claim was won at trial when the court found the patient was warned of the risks and the dentist had carried out the procedure reasonably.