Mistakes Not Malpractice

Law & Regulation
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Dr Michael Sultan advises dental professionals not to mistake mistakes for malpractice

Putting an end to a lengthy legal process in august last year, Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba won her appeal and was allowed to continue her work in the medical profession. The whole episode, which began in 2011 when a young boy died while in the care of Dr Bawa-Garba, has been incredibly divisive.

There has been an outpouring of support for Dr Bawa-Garba from within the medical profession. Many believe the GMC's interference was unnecessarily heavy-handed, and some who believe that the GMC should have supported Dr Bawa-Garba not condemned her – especially in light of the many contextual difficulties she faced leading up to the child's death.

It has also been recognised by her supporters that if Dr Bawa-Garba, who is from Nigeria, had been white she would not have been so relentlessly pursued for her mistake [1].

And, yes, Dr Bawa-Garba did make a mistake. By her own admission she missed the tell-tale signs of sepsis, which ultimately led to the patient's death. But does this mean she should have been so aggressively treated?

Dentists are being sued more regularly

This is, as we all know, something that has been increasingly prevalent in our own corner of the healthcare profession. Dentists are being sued more regularly – and with far greater ferocity – than ever before. And we have received little support from the GDC in this regard; indeed, they have often been our most dogged persecutors.

Now, I am in no way trying to defend professional malpractice or misdemeanour. But cases where genuine mistakes have been made should be very carefully considered. Professionals who make errors should, of course, be held accountable for their actions – they should hold up their hands and admit to their mistakes (we have, after all, a duty to professional candour).

But if we will not feel safe to do so if we feel the looming presence of legal retribution hanging over us. Why would we eagerly throw ourselves onto the fire? This kind of punitive environment will only create an overly defensive and closed profession, when we should be striving for the complete opposite: openness and transparency.

Dr Bawa-Garba's case asks many questions of the medical profession as a whole, and many that are relevant to dentistry. Where does blame lie, for example? What manner of punishment should be meted out to professionals who make an honest mistake? And who has the final say when it comes to determining this punishment?

To what extent should any mistake and the resultant punishment be publicised, if it will affect the professional reputation of the punished? Unfortunately, there are no clear answers – but it is blindingly obvious that such issues need long and careful consideration in the future.

Regrettably, mistakes happen, but they are also one of the most important learning steps we have. Dentistry, as with all areas of healthcare, is an almost continual learning experience – but we will never be able to learn if we are not allowed – or are afraid – to make mistakes.

This doesn't mean we should ignore mistakes when they happen, but rather we must understand how to deal with them more effectively – and take steps to ensure they happen less frequently.


Dr Michael Sultan leads EndoCare, one of the UK’s most trusted specialist endodontic practices and a dependable referral centre. For more information, call 020 7224 0999 or visit www.endocare.co.uk


1] The Guardian: Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba wins appeal against being struck off. To see more click HERE