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The fear of litigation – the struggles of a new dentist


  Posted by: The Probe      6th March 2020

Charlotte Gentry presents her first experiences as a newly qualified dentist.

From the very beginning of my dental course, litigation has been highlighted as a major and growing issue in the dental world. But how big is the issue and is it limiting our growth as professionals?

When I first sat in my surgery on my first day as a foundation dentist I found the fear of litigation quite consuming. Every day I’d worry – did I do this right, did I explain this properly and I am sure this is a familiar feeling amongst many of us? In a world where litigation is on the rise, it is very easy for this fear to overwhelm our professional lives and affect us not only as professionals, but as people. In August 2018 the NHS did a survey regarding dentists’ morale, motivation and working patterns, and a staggering 48.1% of associates reported low or very low morale in England wales, with risk of litigation and indemnity fees being a main factor that contributed to this. It is so sad to read that many of us feel this low morale in a job that we all signed up for in the hopes we would have a full, enjoyable and prosperous career. I’m newly qualified and it worries me that I may feel like this too.

Personally, I strive for perfection, which is a weakness I am fully aware of and something I need to overcome if I am not going to let my profession get on top of me. I get frustrated when I can’t do something, or when something goes wrong, then on top of that I fear being sued for it. Despite always doing my utmost for every patient I see and ensuring I always put my patients’ best interests first, there will surely be a day when I get a complaint – and quite frankly, it scares me.

But should it? Should I be so fearful of making a mistake, or could that paranoia actually be the thing that causes me to make a mistake? Whilst, of course, knowing about the real problem of litigation out there is important, I often wonder if we have been scared to the extent that it can actually negatively impact our work.

In order to provide the best possible treatment, discover new solutions and treatment options, and improve our skills as dentists we have to try new things. Providing that they’re evidence based and informed consent has been obtained there should be no reason not to perform a certain treatment modality. In order to grow and become better clinicians, we have, at some point got to push our own boundaries a little. We can go on courses and do CPD but ultimately, we will learn as we treat our patients.

The fear of being sued will forever limit us. I even find myself considering complex root canals or extractions and wondering – should I refer this? Of course, if it is well out of my skill set I will, however some of these are good learning opportunities that I need to become a competent and skilled clinician. I am in an environment made for learning with immense support and this year should be where I develop my skills, yet I am still finding myself worrying – what if?

Not only does this fear limit us as clinicians, but it may begin to limit patient options too.

Of course there is no answer to this; people will always complain and there will always be litigation in the dental world. But I wonder if there is enough support out there for us, as dentists. We are human after all, we get stressed and tired and overworked and, yes, unfortunately we make mistakes no matter how hard we try to avoid them.

I hope that one day, complaints may be able to become more of a learning opportunity, an opportunity to become even better rather than something to be feared… Sadly, I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

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