A financial lifeline
“Charity sees the need, not the cause”, someone once wrote. For many outside of the profession, there is perhaps a perception that dentists and their families do not need charity. Practitioners, it seems, are well-to-do people who seem to waltz between the raindrops of life’s many difficulties.
However, that is not the case – not now in 2011 and not in 1883, when the fledgling British Dental Association (BDA) founded its Benevolent Fund to care for dentists and their dependents when they found themselves in need.
“You just don’t know what’s around the corner,” said Philip Sutcliffe, retired east of Scotland dentist, Emeritus Professor of Preventive Dentistry, Edinburgh Postgraduate Dental Institute and a trustee of the ’Ben Fund’.
Philip, now 76, who studied at Leeds University in the early 1950s and from the 1960s pursued a career in child dentistry, made the Ben Fund his focus in retirement.
A Registrar at Eastman Dental Hospital (in London) and also at Northwestern University in Chicago for a year after graduating in 1959, Philip later became professor at the Edinburgh University Dental School.
His message to colleagues today is a simple one: the fund has much to do and it needs the giving to continue – the generations come and go, but the problems remain. Indeed, they are growing.
“The biggest change that’s happened over the years, and this is going back before my time, is that the fund used to be for making provision for families after a death,” said Philip.
“There’s been a considerable change, especially over the last decade, and now it’s common for us to be looking after and receiving applications from dentists of working age. In fact, last year 30 per cent of applicants were under 39.
“That’s a big shift. The other thing is that money is more tricky these days. There’s not as much of it around and dentists are suffering like everybody else.”
In 2010, the Ben Fund has given aid to more than 102 dentists and their families.
The numbers of the needy have increased over the past three years and there is a sadly familiar litany of problems they face.
“Why do dentists turn up to us?” he said. “Well, mismanagement of money is not unusual but, after that, physical and mental ill-health, accidents, marital breakdown, drug abuse, alcohol addiction, personal debt, growing old and running out of money, difficulty in getting a performer’s number, removal from the dentist’s register, restrictions imposed by the General Dental Council – that’s the sort of thing that causes dentists to become necessitous.”
He added: “’Dentists’ and ’necessitous’ are not two words that are often found together but, sadly, it happens.
“With more than half of our 37 new applicants on means-tested state benefits, they’re among the poorest people in Britain. And I think that is going to increase.”
Raising the funds
Philip and his fellow trustees also find themselves working more with young families.
“One of the aspects of working with young families is that a single beneficiary may well represent an entire family,” said Philip. “Currently, we help 39 beneficiaries, but that represents 74 adults and children.
The strength of the fund is found in the BDA’s branch network and the membership’s continuous and often creative drive to raise money for others. That can include fundraising at social events to more challenging cycle marathons, hill-walking and 10k races.
“If you bang on about fundraising for long enough, you might remind people that when they’re drawing up their will, they might like to put a bit in our direction,” said Philip.
“When bequests happen they come like wonderful surprises. Sometimes you might get £10,000, £15,000 something like that but that would only be one a year.”
From there, the branch network builds funds towards the Ben Fund’s giving programme that includes one-off grants to meet an individual’s needs; regular grant aid to bolster a beneficiary’s depleted income; or a short-term loan to help over a limited but difficult period.
Help is at hand
Philip offered three examples where the Ben Fund went to work.
“Respite care comes to mind,” he said. “We had a dentist’s widow with dementia, whose daughter had been looking after her, providing routine 24-hour care without relief. She heard about the fund and got in touch, and we were able to give her some money to have a break.”
Another was “a dentist, terminally ill, unable to look after three children, and the fund was able to back up care provided by relatives and friends so that, at least, things could keep going and that the breadwinner in the house was able to keep working.”
A third example was of a dentist seriously injured in a car accident.
“As a young man he’d had leukaemia and made a full recovery but has never been able to take out income protection,” said Philip.
“Sick pay from the NHS came to an end, his savings ran out. He got in touch with the fund. We assessed his needs and gave him a regular grant until he recovered and was able to get back to work.”
With the spirit of seeing the need, not the cause in mind, he added: “That’s the sort of thing that happens to people who don’t deserve to be in a mess and, even if they do deserve it they’re still in a mess.”
Did Philip and his fellow trustees ever get the sense that, perhaps, some colleagues in need were too proud to ask for help?
“I was told by a Scotsman many years ago when I was a student that there’s a phrase ’as cold as charity’, and it stuck with me,” he said, adding that the increased number of applications suggest that pride is not a factor.
Once people apply, the Ben Fund deals “as sympathetically, rapidly, humanly and decently as possible” with their need.
There is, said Philip, “no shame in being ill, having an accident and although you may not feel proud of yourself, getting into financial difficulty.”
He explained: “The general manager visits all of our applicants. That discussion fleshes out the beneficiary’s need. Sometimes, that’s enough. It helps them see their own problems in a particular way and, sometimes, they’ll be able to say they’ll sort out their situation and just get on with it.
“Otherwise, their applications then go to the executive committee and they’ll decide how best we can respond. That means either a grant, an interest-free loan, whatever’s practical.”
“Someone from the trustees will visit the beneficiaries annually, just making sure what we’re doing is appropriate.”
Looking to the future
Is there a need to increase the Ben Fund’s profile and speak to a technology-savvy generation through the internet and the social networking website phenomenon?
“We’re stepping up, we’re re-developing our website and we’ve very recently gained a new administrator – Mary Barton – and this is where her skills lie.
However, online or offline, Philip says the spirit of the message to colleagues remains the same.
“We’re here to help dentists and if people need help, we ask them to get in touch with us, and if the profession’s going to look after itself, we need people to make donations of money.
BDA Benevolent Fund 64 Wimpole Street, London W1G 8YS 020 7486 4994 (24 hour answerphone) Email:
CASE STUDY: UNFIT TO PRACTISE?
A dentist in her 40s – a single mother with children – had worked in a practice for several years when it was bought by a new principal.
After a few months, he reported her to the GDC under Fitness to Practise; the interim orders committee (IOC) imposed conditions on her registration while the allegations were investigated, and he terminated her contract.
Other dentists were reluctant to take her on while she was under investigation, and apart from a Christmas job in a department store she was unemployed.
After 18 months, the IOC decided there was no case to answer and lifted the conditions on her registration.
By this time, she would have been bankrupt if it had not been for the support she received from the fund, and there is no compensation from the GDC for loss of earnings during this time.
CASE STUDY: FAMILY TRAGEDY
A DENTIST in her early 30s, with three children under the age of six, was working part time when her husband, aged 34, had a stroke.
This devastated his wife, who wanted to spend time with him if possible, and had a major affect upon the development and behaviour of the children.
His mobility and speech are still severely affected, but he is about to return home after nine months in hospital and rehabilitation.
He is scarcely able to care for himself for more than an hour or two, and certainly cannot be left to care for the children at all.
The fund has helped them with their living costs, while he has been in hospital, and is now helping them with a care package to enable her to return to work and start to rebuild some normality of life for them all.