Knowing how to respond to a GDC complaint increases the chances of a positive outcome, says Alison Large.

It’s the letter that every dental professional dreads – a notification that the General Dental Council (GDC) is launching an investigation against you. However, it’s good to remember that the vast majority of GDC cases do not go to a full hearing. By keeping the below tips in mind, and with the support of the DDU or your own dental defence organisation, it is possible to improve your chances of an investigation being concluded at an early stage.

Contact your defence organisation

Put yourself in the best possible hands straightaway. DDU members’ first point of contact will be a dento-legal adviser who will oversee your case and provide ongoing advice, support and specialist legal representation. Send requested information promptly: the sooner the dental defence organisation has the relevant details, the sooner it can represent you effectively.

Understand the process

The initial complaint will have been screened by a triage team to ensure it is within the GDC’s scope and raises an issue that might impair your fitness to practise. The team can advise complainants to seek local resolution or refer them to other organisations.

‘Low level’ concerns can be referred to the NHS if they meet the necessary criteria, such as isolated incidents or evidence of poor record-keeping.

If you have received a letter from a GDC case worker, the GDC has decided it has a responsibility to investigate further. Frequently, the investigation will involve the GDC seeking clinical advice. The clinical adviser will produce a report that will help decide if the GDC can close the case at this stage or send it to the case examiners.

If it goes to the case examiners, they will look at the evidence and decide whether there is a ‘real prospect’ of the allegations being found proved at a hearing. Case examiners can refer cases to one of the performance, conduct or health committees, agree undertakings about future practice or issue a warning or advice. Case examiners can also close the case with no further action or adjourn the case pending further enquiries.

The vast majority of GDC cases are dealt with before they reach a hearing. Of a typical 100 cases received by the triage team in 2017, the GDC says that only 14% were referred to a Fitness to Practise committee.

Committee hearings are held in public, with the exception of health concerns. They examine evidence from witnesses and determine whether allegations are proved on the balance of probabilities. If proven, the committee will determine whether your fitness to practise is currently impaired and what sanction would be appropriate. Sanctions include issuing a reprimand, imposing conditions on your registration, suspension from the register and erasure.

Inform others

Notify your employer (or those with whom you are contracted to provide dental services) that you are the subject of a GDC investigation. The GDC will ask for these details and will notify employers or any individual or organisation you hold a contract with that it is looking into a concern raised about you, so it is better to take the initiative.

You will almost certainly have a contractual obligation to inform NHS England or your health board in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as organisations such as Denplan. Your defence organisation can usually suggest a suitable form of words.

It can also sometimes help to let family, friends or colleagues know the strain you are under because they can usually offer support, but be careful to respect patient confidentiality.   

Act professionally towards the complainant

It’s possible the complainant will continue to attend your practice. This can be difficult, so discuss with your defence organisation how to handle this situation to prevent it causing problems for you or your colleagues.

Show insight

Help yourself by reflecting on what has happened and considering whether there is anything you might have done differently. If you have fallen short of the established ethical principles and standards of practice, the GDC expects you to recognise this and take steps to ensure that a similar mistake does not happen in the future.

Taking steps to demonstrate insight and remediate your practice can help to resolve the investigation at the earliest stage.