Acting with immunity

immunityJohn Makin warns the public should not hold dental professionals to an unattainable standard after the applause fades away.

Every Thursday evening, people up and down the UK ‘clap for carers’. This is in recognition of the efforts of NHS staff and other key workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s an uplifting moment. But when we eventually emerge from lockdown, I hope the public will still recognise the efforts made by healthcare professionals and the difficulties they faced.

Good faith

While routine dentistry is on hold during the pandemic, dentists are working hard to provide telephone triage and other services. Other members of the dental team volunteer for redeployment in other medical settings. These professionals are under tremendous pressure, taking difficult decisions about patient care in very challenging conditions.

There are situations where dentists have to make a professional judgment about how to implement best practice guidance in the patient’s interests. Whether to delay a procedure or choose a safer alternative for example. Indeed, we are already receiving calls from dental members about this.

I worry that dentists will be vulnerable to dental negligence claims arising from acts and omissions undertaken in good faith during the pandemic.

Such claims can arise many years after the events in question. The extraordinary period in which dentists take these decisions will fade from the collective memory.

Unachievable standards

In the current climate, different considerations apply. The context of decision making is important. Something that has been recognised by the General Dental Council when examining complaints.

I, and the Dental Defence Union, believe there should be immunity for dental professionals from COVID-19 related claims. Dental professionals must be accountable for their actions. But the unprecedented circumstances must be remembered when investigating claims arising from the pandemic.   

When this crisis is over, we and the other defence organisations will be here to advise and support our members with complaints and claims. Dental professionals can help themselves in the meantime by keeping clear and contemporaneous records of their decisions with reference to the relevant guidance.

However, I believe it would be manifestly unfair for practitioners to be criticised for falling short of an unachievable standard when the applause dies away.

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