In a recent edition of the British Dental Journal, there was an article about fitness to practise and how far its reach should be. The main focus of the article was on an unfortunate dental nurse who had been reprimanded by the General Dental Council (GDC) over a comment she made on Facebook.
This comment, which was probably ill judged on her part, had nothing at all to do with the nurses’ profession or, indeed, anything to do with dentistry in the slightest. It was simply a frustrated outburst. Nevertheless, someone took offence and lodged a complaint with the GDC, who subsequently issued the nurse an official reprimand. Her reputation has thus been tainted with accusations of bigotry.
The question here is whether our personal opinions or actions, however ill considered, should be used to judge us on a strictly professional level. Another case point is Walter Palmer, who the world knows as the sadistic, animal killing dentist. Throughout the lengthy media furore that arose after the unfortunate slaughter of Cecil the Lion, Mr Palmers’ profession was called into question time and time again. But why, even if we find his habit of shooting animals for sport distasteful, should Mr Palmers’ professionalism be dissected on a worldwide stage? One does not imagine that his surgery is festooned with his hunting trophies and dangerous paraphernalia, or that he employed the same callousness when treating his patients.
We live in a very public world where, if we choose to, our personal opinions can be disseminated across a vast distance very quickly. Whether it’s right or not, these opinions will almost inevitably intrude upon our professional reputation – but it is fair that we should be reprimanded because of it?
Make no mistake, I would not condone a professional posting something vitriolic against a patient or colleague, or something that unequivocally portrays their professional conduct in a negative way, but if they are simply voicing their opinions on a subject far removed from dentistry, should we, or indeed any professional body, have a right to reprimand them for it or else call into question their professionalism?
Of course, this should be taken as a parable on the dangers of social media. Anyone who thinks that their opinions, once posted on Facebook or Twitter, are private, is sadly mistaken – and due care, not to mention common sense, should be considered before committing any statement to electronic immortality. But we should also use this opportunity to look once again at the efficacy of the fitness to practice system.
It will probably not come as a surprise that the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) has, in its latest report, shown that the GDC has fallen short on a number of vital standards in regards to fitness to practise – including the quality of decisions and the secure retention of information in cases. The British Dental Association has likened these shortcomings to a mountain that the GDC must climb – and from our perspective, this mountain casts a long and threatening shadow. Dentists are living in constant fear of fitness to practise and its blatant capriciousness; many of us are being penalised for holding and voicing our own personal opinions, irrespective of their relation to our profession. One can only think of Orwell’s 1984 – where everything is monitored with merciless scrutiny. Certainly, in such a climate it is not hard to imagine an offhand comment, made in a moment of frustration, being used against us – and we are all guilty at times of making these comments. After all, dentistry is a stressful profession, even more so now than ever before – so should these things be used to sully our reputations as caring, efficient and otherwise ‘good’ dentists?
Indeed, there must be a change – an improvement. Dental professionals cannot be expected to maintain high standards of care if they are being constantly harried by their own governing body or fear the results of an almost inevitable fitness to practise hearing.
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