Dentists “must apologise” when care goes wrong

DENTISTS must tell patients when something has gone wrong with their care and apologise, according to new guidance from the General Dental Council.

Clinicians are also required, where possible, to "put matters right" and explain the short and long-term effects of what has happened.

The requirements are set out in the regulator’s new guidance on the professional duty of candour, Being open and honest with patients when something goes wrong, which came into effect on July 1.

The GDC’s core guidance Standards for the dental team already requires dentists and dental care professionals to put patients’ interests first; be honest and act with integrity; and offer an apology and a practical solution if a patient makes a complaint.

But the new guidance makes it clear that "candour means being open and honest with all patients, whether they have made a complaint or not".

It sets out the ways in which dentists must be "open and honest with patients", beginning before treatment is carried out. It describes what to do when things go wrong, when and how to tell the patient, and when/how to apologise.

"Going wrong", it explains, can cover a range of issues, from a patient suffering actual harm during treatment to an issue with the service provided by the practice which causes distress.

The guidance advises that apologies should be "personal" to the patient and "relevant to what has happened, rather than being a general expression of regret". Dentists are then expected to explain what has happened, what has been done (or can be done) to put matters right and what will be done to stop the same thing happening to someone else.

This requirement to offer an apology has been criticised by the British Society of Dental Hygiene and Therapy (BSDHT).

Responding to the new guidance, they said that "being forced to apologise, potentially a legal admission of fault, positions the clinician in professional jeopardy". They described the guidance as "unnecessary over-regulation" that "casts doubt over the integrity of the profession".

But the GDC guidance reassures clinicians, saying: "Apologising to the patient is not the same as admitting legal liability for what happened. This is set out in legislation in parts of the UK and the NHS Litigation Authority also advises that saying sorry is the right thing to do. You should not withhold an apology because you think that it might cause problems later."

It goes on to advise that the "most appropriate team member" should offer the apology and explanation and that: "When apologising to the patient and explaining what happened, you do not have to take responsibility for something that went wrong which was not your fault (such as a mistake by another member of the team)."

You can access MDDUS' latest advice article on Statutory Duty of Candour here.