Dr Zaid Al-Najjar, Deputy Medical Director of the service explains how NHS Practitioner Health can help dentists with mental health and addiction issues.
NHS Practitioner Health is a free and confidential service which specialises in treating doctors and dentists with mental illness and/or addiction issues. We recognise that this professional group face specific difficulties when wishing to access mainstream healthcare. They also find it difficult to switch from being a treating practitioner to a patient. Dentists have a higher rate of mental health and substance misuse problems compared to the general public along with double the suicide rate.
The service is available via self-referral for any dentist living or working in England, and over the last few months we have seen growing numbers accessing the service. This may be because the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have begun to be felt and dentists are finding it difficult to manage their professional lives whilst being limited in how they can open and operate, impacting on their mental wellbeing and health.
Doctors and dentists have historically been a hard to reach group in terms of healthcare for several reasons. They worry about confidentiality and the stigma of being "labelled" with a mental health or addiction problem and the impact that this may have on their career and professional status. Access to mainstream healthcare can also be difficult because of shift work and unsociable hours and moving location frequently due to training posts.
We take confidentiality very seriously and in some cases patients are able to register with a pseudonym if they are very concerned. Our administrative staff are all trained in dealing with doctors and dentists and if a dentist reading this has concerns, I would urge them to contact our team who will talk through the process and discuss any fears they may have.
We recognise that dentists often work in isolation without the support of peers and colleagues and can face organisational, financial and time pressures. We also recognise that dentists can fear referral to the regulator as a result of their health and as a result we have a memorandum of understanding with the General Dental Council which allows us to treat dentists on a confidential basis and allows us flexibility in treatment without needing to involve the regulator. Very rarely do we need to breach patient confidentiality, for example when a practitioner continues to work despite serious potential risk to the public, against our advice. We have set parameters for when we must escalate matters but I am happy to say, for the vast majority of patients we do not need to share information with the GDC and can successfully treat and rehabilitate practitioners without regulatory involvement. We work to the principle that a doctor or dentist who accesses the service should never be worse off being part of Practitioner Health than not having accessed it.
We are also used to seeing patients who are subject to dento-legal processes and we have a great deal of experience in supporting our patients through such matters. We always ask about such issues during our initial assessment as we know how significant the impact can be on a practitioner's mental health.
Our service has existed over a decade and we have successfully treated thousands of practitioners, helping them recover and remain in practice. We provide a safe space for practitioners to talk about the problems they experience and if appropriate we then tailor a management plan for the patient practitioner. We are able to prescribe, provide talking therapy, issue fit notes and even inpatient rehabilitation for practitioners with addiction issues, as appropriate. We can liaise with external agencies with the patients' consent and help practitioners get back to work when they are not in work when they self-refer to our service. We have a network of clinicians across England, all with experience and understanding of the unique needs of clinicians as patients, and consultations can be done face to face or remotely (during the covid-19 pandemic, we have been treating patients remotely using online platforms or by telephone, depending on the patient's preference).
Dentists have historically accessed the service far less than doctors and we suspect this is because we are just not as well known about in the dental profession. Self-referral to us is easy and can be done straight from our website. Accessing the service could make all the difference in terms of how a dentist feels about work and ability to continue in the role they have chosen.
we are not yet funded to treat the wider dental team however they can still access the wide range of wellbeing resources available on our website.
We have produced a huge number of wellbeing resources available on our website including webinars, podcasts, free mental health and wellbeing apps, access to free therapy and online events including support groups, mindfulness and online yoga. I would encourage any reader to visit our website in that regard as all of these resources are free of charge. All of these can be accessed by any member of the team and there is no need to register to access these resources. We also provide a 24 hour crisis text service for practitioners, Text NHSPH to 85258.
Finally, I would urge our dental colleagues to look out for each other and if you spot signs that you or a colleague/friend are suffering with burnout/stress/low mood then consider self-referral to us. Feedback from our patient survey tells us that 93% of our patients would recommend our service to family and friends in the same position. Often asking for help is the hardest part in the patient journey but remember that you are not alone in this and we have helped thousands of your colleagues get better and live happier lives - both personal and professional.