Risk: Treating colleagues

IT’S not uncommon to be asked by a colleague for healthcare advice or treatment but MDDUS advises leaving this to their own dentist

IT’S not uncommon for clinicians to be asked to provide healthcare advice or treatment to a colleague. Some healthcare staff might even think of it as a potential job perk. Instead of taking time away from work to visit their own dentist they may decide it’s more convenient to approach you.

It might be tempting in the current lockdown to offer advice or treatment to a colleague in order to save them having to go elsewhere for treatment and risk catching or transmitting the coronavirus. Your colleague might view this as doing the organisation a favour by not taking time off for an outside appointment.

Refusing to offer advice or treatment in this situation might feel awkward or overscrupulous. Doing so might seem particularly difficult if your organisation has a long-established culture where it’s been seen as acceptable to offer the occasional temporary filling or prescribe the odd antibiotic to a member of staff when the risks appear minimal.

However, MDDUS would usually advise that you ask your colleague to make an appointment with their own dentist.

Regulatory guidance

No doubt we can develop close relationships with colleagues, working together in sometimes intense circumstances, day after day. It is important to recognise that these close personal relationships can inhibit the ability to make any potential clinical decision objectively.

In a dental setting, there is no specific rule prohibiting a dentist from providing care to friends, family or colleagues generally, and this may be described as accepted practice within the dental profession. There is, however, one clearly outlined exception to this general principle, as set out in the General Dental Council's (GDC) supplementary Guidance on prescribing medicines:

“Part of prescribing medicines responsibly means prescribing only where you are able to form an objective view of your patient’s health and clinical needs.

"If you prescribe medicines for someone with whom you have a close personal relationship you may not be able to remain objective and you could overlook serious problems, encourage addiction, or interfere with treatment provided by other healthcare professionals.

"Other than in emergencies, you should not prescribe medicines for anyone with whom you have a close personal relationship.”

Access to clinical records

There are other, logistical reasons for avoiding the provision of treatment to colleagues. You may be approached for advice regarding a fairly straightforward issue such as tooth sensitivity.

However, in the absence of a full medical history you will be relying purely on your colleague to relay clinically relevant information and this will make it difficult to come to an informed shared decision on advice or potential treatment. There could be something in the dental records regarding the presenting complaint that your colleague thinks is not relevant or is inappropriate to disclose.

Any interaction with a patient – be it simple self-care advice or a prescription – should be noted in the patient records and this can be difficult without direct access. It is important not only for continuity of care but also has potential legal implications if evidence is required for defence in a claim or regulatory complaint.

Disputes over treatment

Dealing with complaints by patients regarding alleged inadequate advice or treatment is difficult enough, but when involving a colleague this can complicate matters further and impact relationships across the team.

One example of a complaint escalating into a staff dispute involved a dentist providing tooth whitening treatment to an employee at a discounted rate. The individual complained that the treatment both didn’t work and had caused increased sensitivity. A refund was offered to the staff member however they sought compensation after having to pay for their own dentist to carry out treatment for the tooth sensitivity. The dentist carrying out the initial treatment had to seek MDDUS advice and assistance on the matter and the conflict had an impact on team morale and trust.

Special circumstances

Clear conflicts of interest can exist from an employment law perspective when clinicians wear two hats, one as a GDP and the other as an employer. It is therefore preferable to avoid having staff members registered at the practice as patients. There are of course scenarios where providing treatment to a colleague is warranted.

These include emergency situations where delay can have severe consequences on someone’s health. A quick risk assessment should be undertaken and any necessary treatment provided to stabilise the condition.

Practising in a rural area can also limit options in finding alternative dental care – so having staff as registered patients may sometimes be unavoidable. In such circumstances you must take care to ensure that decisions on clinical treatment are not influenced in any way by business priorities. It might be advisable for a dentist who is not a partner (and so not the employer of the practice staff) to lead on providing clinical care to practice staff.

Action points

  • Advise colleagues to seek advice from their own dentist where possible and practicable.
  • Carry out a quick clinical risk assessment in emergency situations and provide minimal treatment required to make the patient safe until further help can be sought from their own healthcare provider.
  • Ensure unavoidable clinical decisions regarding staff are not influenced by any business needs or other conflicts of interest.
  • Follow regulatory guidance on treating family and close associates, as well as guidance on maintaining adequate patient records.

Kay Louise Grant is a risk adviser at MDDUS

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