The rise of clinical negligence claims has been a hot topic of conversation amongst UK dentists in recent years. In a poll of over 1100 dentists, 89% fear being sued by patients, while 74% suggest the threat of litigation affects how they practise, with many making far more referrals than they used to.
Of course, fear isn’t without foundation. One leading dental organisation states that UK dentists are twice as likely to receive a dental negligence claim as ten years ago. This is fuelled by a combination of tighter sanctions placed on NHS staff, plus the growth of no-win no-fee law firms that are increasing awareness and driving up the number of clinical lawsuits.
So, as a practising dentist, can you do anything to protect yourself against a dental negligence claim?
Here are 5 top tips:
Tip #1 – Be open and transparent
As dentists, we have a professional responsibility to be open and honest with patients. So, before any treatment starts, patients must understand their treatment options, including the benefits, costs, and risks involved.
It’s imperative to provide patients with information in a way they understand while giving them sufficient time to decide what they want to do.
If treatment doesn’t go according to plan, it’s essential to:
- tell the patient,
- offer a remedy to put matters right (if possible); and
- explain fully the short and long-term effects of what has occurred.
Note: NHS Resolution (formerly the NHS Litigation Authority) state that offering an apology is not the same as admitting liability and suggest that this is always the right thing to do.
Tip #2 – Document everything
Diligent record-keeping goes a long way to preventing a successful malpractice lawsuit. As long as regular protocols are followed and high standards of patient care are delivered, meticulous dental documentation is your first line of defence against a dental negligence claim.
If you use abbreviations and acronyms, ensure they are common knowledge or can easily be explained.
And, if you have to make corrections, the golden rule is never to obliterate an entry. Instead, run a line through it, initial it and make the re-entry.
Professional liability insurers have long asserted that errors or inadequacies in patient records have prevented them from successfully defending a clinician against a malpractice lawsuit. Therefore, always ensure diligent record keeping and never leave anything to chance.
Tip #3 – Thorough follow-up protocols
Patients have numerous reasons for missing an appointment but maintaining good rescheduling protocols is essential for dentists where possible litigation is concerned.
When an appointment is missed, it creates scope for a patient to suggest a poorly timed diagnosis. Unfortunately, an untimely or late diagnosis is one of the most common types of claims filed against dentists.
Initiating sound follow-up procedures ensures that every patient who has missed or cancelled an appointment has been contacted. Doing so offers a further layer of protection against a dental negligence claim.
Because it highlights the fact that the patient has refused to show rather than placing the onus on the timing of any diagnosis.
Tip #4 – Refer when necessary
As mentioned earlier, the rise in dental negligence claims across the UK has caused many dentists to rethink how they practise, resulting in an uptake in referral cases.
This isn’t necessarily bad, especially when dentists are unsure whether to treat a particular case or refer out.
Don’t be tempted to use your existing knowledge and skill to treat a case if you think the outcome may differ from normal. If in any doubt, seeking advice or referring the patient to a specialist is the right thing to do.
When a treatment fails, it isn’t uncommon for litigious patients to suggest that a specialist could have resolved their problem. So, always err on the side of caution.
Tip #5 – Taking prompt action when things go wrong
In the latest year of reporting (2022), 21 million people sought NHS dental treatment, and around 14,285 (0.06% of cases) ended in complaints. While only 22% of these complaints directly resulted from clinical treatment, it highlights that things can and do go wrong.
When patients are unhappy with their treatment, ensure fast action is taken to provide the best possible outcome.
Firstly, apologise and explain the situation. Take ownership of the problem immediately and assure patients you will rectify the situation.
Where applicable, offer appropriate remedial treatment at no further cost and/or give a goodwill gesture. These steps, although relatively simple, are often enough to ease patients’ concerns, lessening the risk of a dental negligence claim.
So, there you have it; 5 top tips to protect yourself against a dental malpractice lawsuit.
At the Dental Defence Society, we have your back. With an executive committee of dental professionals, we’re acutely aware of the everyday challenges facing the UK’s dentists in 2023 and beyond. So, if you face a complaint, a negligence claim or a legal issue, we can help.
With 24/7 access to dento-legal advice and assistance from highly trained professionals, our team provides ongoing support and tailored indemnity packages that allow you to do your job without worry.
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