How the GDC uses ‘undercover’ investigators

02 December, 2019 by Stefan Czerniawski
Last month, the Sunday Telegraph ran a story under the arresting headline “Dentists in 'spying' row with regulator which spent £15k on private investigators posing as patients' families”. Not surprisingly, that’s prompted a lot of concern about whether that’s an approach which can be necessary or justified.

We do use undercover investigators. In fitness to practise we do so extremely rarely – and even more rarely now than even a couple of years ago. We do so only when there is a potential risk to patients and only when there is no other way of investigating a specific allegation.

Since the beginning of 2017 there has not been a single investigation of a fitness to practise concern about a dentist which included an undercover visit. Over the same period, there were just 12 undercover visits contributing to investigations of dental care professionals. That’s 0.2% of the new fitness to practise concerns we have received since the beginning of 2017. So, to turn that round, in 99.8% of cases, undercover visits play no part in the investigation.

Our investigations always start with somebody reporting a concern. We don’t do random inspections or mystery shopping. In almost all cases, our approach to investigation can be open and straightforward. But there are some allegations which would give rise to real concern if they were well founded but for which it is very hard to gather evidence. Some kinds of scope of practice allegations come into this category. That’s when we consider very carefully whether an undercover visit may be the best way forward. The purpose of those visits is to discover what is happening. It is not to encourage or provoke registrants – or anybody else – to do things which they would not otherwise do.

For obvious reasons, we can’t talk openly about specific cases in progress. But we can – and we are happy to – discuss our general approach. As with every other aspect of our investigatory approach our aim is to protect patients and to be fair to registrants. Getting the balance right is sometimes a difficult judgement to make. We make those decisions with great care, but we always welcome views on whether we are drawing the line in the right place.


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