17 Feb 2020  •  Blog, Dental Landscape, Mental Health  •  6min read By  • Janet Mason

My story: volunteering with a helpline for dentists

In 2019 a group of dentists, spearheaded by Jeremy Cooper, created Confidental, a helpline for dentists in distress.

The purpose of Confidental is to ‘provide emotional first aid for dentists in distress’. It is a confidential helpline run by dentists for colleagues who are suffering with some kind of issue, whether that is professional, personal, financial, emotional or practical.

It is run by volunteers, all of whom are practising or retired dentists.

One of those volunteers is John Lewis, a practice owner and CQC adviser. Below, he tells me why he wanted to be involved and the kinds of calls he has been receiving so far…

Janet: Why did you want to volunteer with Confidental?

John: Way back in 2009 I had an unfortunate incident in surgery. A patient had a tooth irrigated with Corsodyl mouthwash, went into anaphylaxis and died.

It was quite a traumatic time, and it took about a year to deal with the police and coroners. I went onto the GDPUK forum and shared my experience so that others could learn from it. Jeremy Cooper, who I hadn’t met before, posted a reply in which he suggested the idea of setting up some kind of group of experienced dentists to be a sounding board for others.

The idea didn’t really go anywhere at that point, but then in 2018, somebody Jeremy knew committed suicide and he brought up the idea again. This time, it caught hold and Confidental was born, driven by Jeremy Cooper and other trustees Jenny Pinder and Keith Hayes, and it wouldn’t have happened without the initiative of the Facebook page Mental Dental set up by Lauren Harrhy.

Janet: How have you found the volunteering so far?

John: It’s been interesting because as dentists we are trained to listen, briefly, and come to a solution very quickly. We’re fixers, and in surgery you only have two or three minutes to make your mind up and take some kind of action.

As a volunteer, it’s a totally different mindset. You’re not coming up with solutions, you’re there to listen, reflect back, listen some more, allow people to come to their own conclusions and then, if needed, signpost them to somewhere else for further services.

It’s very rewarding because often people call to talk about one thing, but that has just been the tipping point and actually there’s something else going on that has been building for some time.

For example, someone called up as they were worried because they had fractured a patient’s tooth. They weren’t sleeping, and were going into the practice on their days off to re-read the notes, even though the patient hadn’t complained and they had even called the patient who confirmed they were happy.

But that was just their tipping point to call. Once we had talked through that, it eventually came out that there was a lot more going on.

Janet: Have you seen any common theme to the kind of calls you’re receiving?

John: Definitely, there have been two main themes. Anxiety and depression are number one, in terms of a fear of patients over-reacting to minor incidents and the potential legal consequences of that.

And the second main theme is bullying in the workplace by staff.

I’m a CQC specialist advisor, so I spend time visiting practices all over the country and I can see that there has been a downward spiral of confidence across the profession.

Newly qualified dentists are scared of the GDC, the CQC, and lawyers to the point that they are becoming increasingly defensive. There are also dentists in their 50s whose confidence is going downhill and they’re thinking ‘I’m not doing this extraction, it might snap’. I’m seeing this everywhere.

Janet: Where do you think this ‘downward spiral of confidence’ is coming from?

John: As a profession, we don’t talk anymore. When I first started in dentistry, I used to go out to the pub with a group of dentists and we would talk and bat our problems back and forth. It was confidential and you would come away feeling like other people were doing the same things as you, having similar experiences and making the same mistakes.

It feels as if people don’t communicate in the same way. With social media you can have 1,000 friends on Facebook, but how many do you actually know? How many do you actually talk to?

As dentists we are very insular. Many of the avenues through which we used to meet, such as study groups, rarely happen anymore.

People also change jobs a lot more now, it’s common for associates to only stay for two or three years in a practice before moving on. It is now rare for there to be an owner landlord or a principal dentist working in just one practice with three or four associates who could easily turn to that principal if they were in need.

Often, dentists will be running five or six surgeries. On one of my CQC visits I attended a practice owned by a dentist who has five practices based between London and the North West and he visits some of his practices every three or four months, and that is now common.

Janet: Why do you think a helpline specifically for dentists is needed?

John: This is dentists helping dentists – real dentists who understand the real problems others are going through. You can talk to someone about a fractured lower-seven and not only will they know what you are talking about, but the chances are that they will have done it too.

Among the volunteers there is a wide range of people from different cultures, experiences, ages, etc. but we’re all dentists and we’ve all been there. Just knowing that someone else has done the same thing and nothing terrible happened to them can be incredibly reassuring.

Janet: What advice would you give someone who is thinking of calling but can’t quite pick up the phone?

John: Firstly, it is completely confidential. The calls come in via a diversion so we don’t know where you’re calling from and can’t call you back, and you don’t have to give your name. You can’t be identified in any way.

The other thing is, we’re there to listen and reach some kind of solution, which might be helping you find other services that can help as well. It is completely non-judgemental, no one will tell you you’re rubbish or have done something wrong. It’s like your best friend in a way.

Janet: John, thank you for your time and shedding some more light on the work of Confidental.

You can call Confidental on: 0333 987 5158 or visit their website here.

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