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Leading article: Time to drill into dental charges


It was probably inevitable that dentists would bite back at the claim from the Office of Fair Trading that many in the profession have been misleading patients into having unnecessary treatment. In fact, the vast majority of the public are happy with the care they receive, according to the British Dental Association. That may be so. But a significant minority – perhaps as many as 500,000 people – may have either been offered private treatment without being told of a cheaper NHS alternative, or, worse still, been given treatments they did not need.

There can be no excuse for failing to provide information on NHS charges. Yet, according to Which? magazine, some 39 per cent of people who have been to the dentist in the past two years saw no leaflets or posters to guide them on what they might expect to pay. And more than 80 per cent were treated without a written plan detailing what was to be done and the cost. The British Dental Health Foundation's claim that a price list would "lead to confusion" is risible. So, too, is the notion that patients should be prevented from seeing dental hygienists without a referral from a dentist.

By agreeing to develop a code of practice covering monthly dental plans, the BDA has effectively acknowledged both the legitimacy of concerns over the hard sell of expensive plans and the complexity of the process for patients to make complaints.

The suggestion that some dentists may be duping their patients into either unnecessary, or unnecessarily expensive, treatments is one which brings the profession into disrepute. Rather than resorting to defensive denials, the profession and its representative bodies would do better to ask how such malpractice can be tackled, and what measures can be put in place to restore public confidence.

The OFT has called for major changes, not least in the structure of NHS contracts, which make it difficult for new practices to be established and successful ones to be expanded. Dentists themselves must decide how such changes should best be introduced, not in institutional defence of their own profession, but with a starting stance of asking what serves patients best.