Frustration over access ‘fuelling abuse’ against profession

29 August, 2023 / infocus
 Will Peakin  

In a Dental Protection survey of more than 1,300 UK dental professionals, more than half (57 per cent) say they have experienced or witnessed verbal or physical abuse from patients or their relatives in the past 12 months, with 64 per cent of those saying the incidents resulted from frustration over long waiting times for appointments and 59 per cent saying it related to the treatment they received.

In addition, 58 per cent of those who have experienced or witnessed abuse in the past 12 months said it affected their mental health, and over a third (37 per cent) said an increase in abuse and intimidation from patients has made them reconsider their career in dentistry.

Nearly a third of dental professionals (31 per cent) also feel abuse against dental professionals is not taken seriously by police.

Dental Protection, part of the Medical Protection Society (MPS) – the world’s leading protection organisation supporting more than 300,000 healthcare professionals – called on the UK Government and police to take “every possible step” to tackle the issue.

Dr Raj Rattan, Dental Director at Dental Protection, said: “Patients who are seeking dental care either for routine care or dental emergencies are becoming increasingly frustrated because of long waiting times and closed lists. Dental professionals continue to offer quality care in a challenging environment but there is a limit when it comes to available capacity.

“While most patient interactions are convivial it is alarming to learn that a high proportion of dental professionals experience verbal and physical abuse from patients – including, as reported, being threatened with stabbing.

“Experiencing and witnessing abuse can have a lasting and profound impact on mental health and this can be damaging for the individual as well as for patient care. It can also result in dental professionals needing to take time off work, and even quitting dentistry altogether.

“The zero-tolerance policy with regard to abuse, aggression and violence must be rigorously enforced so dental professionals feel their safety is the first priority. The policy must be visible to patients and should emphasise the importance of mutual respect between staff and patients.

“We encourage practices to provide support and a forum where those who witness or experience any kind of abuse from patients can talk about it and seek an appropriate remedy. The team needs to be aware of what support is available and how to access it.

“Police and Crime Commissioners, and police forces across the UK, should consider how they can support local dental practices; for example, by encouraging reporting of abuse and offering practical advice on recognising warning signs or de-escalation techniques.

“The Government and police must take every possible step to tackle this issue. If we don’t act, we may lose many more skilled, committed dental professionals at a time when the industry can ill-afford it.”

Dental professionals who participated in the Dental Protection survey commented anonymously:

  • “I was physically threatened because a patient could not access care anywhere due to closed lists. We involved the police and the patient received a caution.”
  • “Patients are frustrated at not getting NHS ortho due to lack of consultants and practitioners. I can understand why they are upset it’s just hard being the ‘verbal’ punching bag – these services should not be postcode dependant.”
  • “Patients are verbally abusive when informed about the lack of capacity for NHS treatment. They accuse staff of being uncaring.”
  • “A patient was told his orthodontic treatment was to be terminated due to poor compliance. He became verbally abusive and threatened to stab us. We had to barricade ourselves in the surgery until the police arrived, and all the while he was trying to kick the surgery door in.”

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