Raj Rattan asks: “Are reforms to GDC going in the wrong direction?”
This month marks the ten-year anniversary of the Government White Paper ‘Enabling Excellence’, which set out ambitious plans for radically reforming the way health professionals are regulated. This White Paper recognised that the current system of regulation is “complex, expensive and requires continuous Government intervention to keep it up-to-date”.
Sadly, very little progress has been made in the past decade. Subsequent consultations have come and gone without significant changes being made. The General Dental Council (GDC) continues to be guided by the Dentists Act 1984 (as amended), which was passed in 1984 and is outdated. Indeed, in some areas it requires the GDC to conduct their operations in a way that is inefficient and not in the best interest of patients or professionals.
In recent years, the Government has consulted on plans to reduce the nine professional regulators down to three or four, a move which many expected would lead to the abolition of the GDC in its current form and dental professionals being regulated, alongside many other professions, by the same body.
A recent Department of Health and Social Care White Paper, confirms that this is still being considered despite warnings from many, including Dental Protection, that the creation of a ‘super regulator’ or a similar large-scale amalgamation could result in a loss of domain knowledge, expertise, and understanding of the distinct professions.
The White Paper says the Government plans to remove the need for a Bill to be introduced to Parliament each time they want to abolish a regulator. Instead, under the proposals, the Government would be able to abolish the GDC or other regulators, or remove whole professions from regulation, by passing secondary legislation, which can pass through more quickly and with less scrutiny by Parliament.
We believe there is a strong case for the GDC to remain as the regulator for registrants who provide clinical care and treatment for their patients, sometimes under challenging circumstances. The importance of situational factors cannot be understated, and it is vital that the profession requires a regulator with the necessary experience and expertise to understand context and complexity.
The news that this amalgamation exercise has not been shelved is worrying, however what is perhaps more concerning is the lack of progress around desperately needed improvements to the GDC’s Fitness to Practise function. While the White Paper states that proposals in this area will be taken forward separately, there is yet no indication of the time frame.
Reforms to the Dentists Act 1984 (as amended), to enable the regulator to streamline its Fitness to Practise processes and reduce the number of investigations into less serious allegations, are long overdue. Reforms are also needed to require the GDC to conclude investigations in a timely manner and without undue delays.
There has never been a more important time to address the shortcomings of the present processes. COVID-19 has sparked discussions about the extent to which individuals are held to account when working in pressurised and extreme circumstances, and now more than ever, the GDC needs to be able to operate in a way that restores and instils confidence amongst patients, dentists and the governments of the UK.
The governments should keep this in sharp focus when it comes to reforming the way professionals are regulated.
Raj Rattan is the Dental Director at Dental Protection.