GDC developmental advisers: changes to dental professional support in England

On 16 September 2021, the General Dental Council (“GDC”) announced imminent changes to the way in which dental professionals in England who are the subject of conditions or undertakings receive support.

Agreed undertakings and conditions are two of the possible outcomes arising from a fitness to practise investigation. Practitioners may be required to carry out specific activities to remediate identified concerns (often clinical), such as further training or to refrain from particular aspects of practice until a period of re-training has been completed, invariably with the appointment of an educational supervisor to oversee and advise upon developmental needs. Traditionally, educational and developmental support has been available to dental professionals through the allocation of an adviser by one of the Health Education England (“HEE”) Postgraduate Dental Deaneries. It is reported an average of four practitioners a month were being referred to HEE under the current system and the GDC has reported the costs involved are approximately £850 funded by the practitioner under investigation.

The changes, which will take effect from 30 September 2021, arise from HEE notifying the GDC that they will no longer be taking any new referrals as a result of a “recent review of postgraduate services” – make of that what you will. Presumably, those practitioners already working with HEE will be permitted to continue doing so. This means that HEE will no longer be accepting new referrals, potentially leaving those registrants with conditions or undertakings with an absence of often much needed support. In response, the GDC has said that it will be putting in place a new “development support pathway” for dental professionals in England which, it is said, will provide practitioners with “greater flexibility when it comes to their needs”. The existing arrangements in the rest of the UK will remain unchanged. The GDC say they will provide guidance in signposting to relevant organisations for support but it will be up to individual practitioners to find and select their own “developmental adviser” to assist them. It is said that these development advisers will support dental professionals to develop their skills and competencies and will be responsible for guiding and providing support in the identified areas of development or learning and the preparation of a Professional Development Plan.  However, the GDC has stated that they will now seek to formally approve every developmental adviser with reference to the GDC’s minimum requirements, such as dental experience (10 years’ experience is preferable but 4-5 years may be considered adequate), there being no conflict of interest and having no adverse fitness to practise history themselves with the GDC, thus creating an additional administrative step that does not presently exist.

The GDC is quick to assert that those subject to conditions or undertakings should be given appropriate bespoke support considered on an individual basis and for this not to be limited to support from HEE, with the end result being to get practitioners back to unrestricted practice as soon as practically possible by broadening the support available. However, it remains to be seen whether these changes will achieve this aim or if, in fact, this merely serves to increase the amount of anxiety caused to practitioners by leaving them to fend for themselves in finding someone to provide educational and development support before they can resume any dental work. At the very least, the additional step of the GDC needing to approve the developmental adviser is likely to increase the administrative burden on practitioners when complying with their conditions/undertakings which could potentially delay their return to work, which is a concern. This was traditionally area of certainty during what is often an anxious time for practitioners under investigation but now the recent notification from HEE and the GDC’s decision to require formal approval of developmental advisers could present practitioners will difficulty in finding someone suitable and sufficiently qualified to provide support, which could prevent them from being able to work at all.

The GDC has advised that this new process will be kept under review for the next six months with professionals and stakeholders encouraged to raise any issues or concerns regarding this new process.

Written by Associate Lee Biddle and Trainee Solicitor Gina Southwood

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