Ready to engage

Communicating the ‘Patients First’ message of Practitioner Services is top priority for Scotland’s new senior dental adviser

04 August, 2017 / indepth
 Stewart McRobert    Mark K Jackson

There’s a new senior dental adviser in place in Scotland who is out to engage with the profession with a view to improving collaboration between Scottish dentists and Practitioner Services.

Alan Whittet took up his role in April and brings with him a lengthy track record, both as a practising dentist and dental adviser. He first qualified in 1984 and subsequently spent 28 years as a full-time GDP, first becoming a practice inspector in 1994.

As he outlines, one of Practitioner Services’ tasks is to act on behalf of the Scottish Dental Practice Board. It has the responsibility to assess cases submitted for prior approval by dentists and determine, on the basis of the information dentists have provided, if it is appropriate to give that approval. He insists decisions are made on clinical grounds and in the best interests of patients; financial factors are never a consideration.

There is a perception in some quarters that we are the dental police. I don’t think that’s the reality and my aim is to fix that perception

Alan Whittet, Senior Dental Advisor

According to Alan, the idea that Practitioner Services are the dental police is a misconception. He says: “While we are here to promote and ensure good clinical practice, we also need to identify poor practice and take corrective action when required, or communicate with others who have that responsibility.

“This has led to a perception in some quarters that we are the dental police, are out to get dentists and are targeting them unfairly. I don’t think that’s the reality and my aim is to fix that perception.

“I am determined that we, in particular the clinicians here, engage more with the profession and its representatives. We want to do that in a way that makes them understand that the term dental adviser means exactly that – we are here to provide advice and support, and to help dentists work within the regulations in the best interests of their patients.”

Perhaps his determination to engage stems from the fact that Alan still sees himself as a dentist first and foremost, and has seen the benefits of communication. “I became a dental practice adviser in NHS Lothian in the late 90s and have only recently resigned that job.

“I loved the role and the best thing about it was getting to meet other dentists, usually on their territory, and chat about things of mutual interest. It was good to have the chance to explain and advise on things that dentists were uncertain of or even annoyed about having to do. If you can explain the purpose or background people are more understanding.”

This is his second stint at Practitioner Services. He first joined the organisation on a part-time basis in 2010 and became a full-time adviser in 2012. In 2015, he moved to a professional indemnity firm as an associate dento-legal adviser. However, when the senior dental adviser post was advertised he found it impossible to ignore. “I missed being here, and when I was given the opportunity to come back I grabbed it,” he says.



Looking forward, Alan believes the changing nature of the profession will see he and his team assume a more educational role. For illustration, he cites the increasing number of dentists practising in the country who qualified elsewhere and have inadequate experience of the system.

“They can make innocent mistakes because they misinterpret the Statement of Dental Remuneration and the Regulations,” he says. “If we don’t put education in place early we are leaving them to make these errors. It costs them and it costs us to correct them.”

With that tutoring role in mind, Practitioner Services is linking with NHS Education for Scotland (NES). Among other things, it contributes to mandatory induction training for dentists who have not undertaken vocational training in Scotland. The mandatory training includes “understanding of the rules and regulations”, which is where Practitioner Services offers advice.

“We are also linking with NES to provide training directly to vocational dental practitioners (VDPs). In the past, courses have been provided by different people and may have given different messages. I think it is important that VDPs receive a consistent line so that they avoid mistakes,” says Alan.

Another part of its communications drive is a planned series of dental roadshows which will visit different parts of the country.

“My number one priority is engagement with the profession. We need to make sure they know why we are here and what we are doing.”

Meanwhile, several developments promise to bring further change, not least the Scottish Government’s recent  consultation on Scotland’s oral health. Although the outcome won’t be known until later this year, Alan speculates that there will be opportunities for Practitioner Services to increase the scope of its services. He believes there are activities that take place across the country that are managed differently by different health boards. It could make sense in terms of efficiency and effectiveness for some of these to be carried out centrally by National Services Scotland (NSS), of which Practitioner Services is a part.

“We will need to see what emerges, but it may well be there’s greater emphasis on preventive activity, which has to be a good thing. If that does happen, we will need to be ready to monitor preventive activity as well as treatment.”

He also suggests a simplification of the payments and prior approval systems would make sense. “It would be good to have a set-up where it’s harder to make mistakes and dentists can get on with their work without having to worry too much about lots of different codes and so on.”

Other factors add to the sense of flux within the profession. Alan highlights the greater diversity of dentists compared to 20 years ago, and the increasing number of corporates involved in the sector. In addition, the Minamata Convention will lead to a gradual phasing out of the use of amalgam, which will present a challenge for the NHS.

Patients first

Whatever happens, Alan and his team expect dentists will do their best for their patients, comply with the regulations and professional standards and work in accordance with any laws that affect their practice. “Above all,” he says, “patients are our priority; our objective is to support the provision of safe, effective and person-centred care.”

Looking forward five years, Alan hopes by that time the profession will see Practitioner Services in a different light and there will be a far more collaborative relationship. “Among other things, I would hope that all of the projects that we have on the go to introduce electronic processes – eDental, ePrior Approval and eOrtho – will have been a success.

“If we can have all that working efficiently and smoothly I would hope that we spend less of our time on paper chasing and administration and far more of our time engaging directly with dentists, as well as getting more involved with education.

“I’m excited about the challenges ahead. I’m under no illusions about the work that’s needed, but it’s great to be back and I’m looking forward to working with colleagues throughout the profession.”


Stirling to senior adviser

Alan Whittet, Scotland’s new senior dental adviser, qualified from Edinburgh Dental School in 1984. He went straight into general dental practice and worked in three different practices over the course of 28 years. The majority of the time was spent in the NHS. He was an associate at a Stirling practice for two years before moving to another in the west end of Edinburgh. After five years he headed down the coast to East Lothian and a practice in Longniddry. During his 20 years there he bought into the practice and contributed to a series of changes.

Tags: Alan Whittet / Patients First

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