Chief Dental Officer for Northern Ireland, Caroline Lappin, reflects on her first months in office, highlighting the launch of the Low level concerns agreement in Northern Ireland and her priorities for the future.
Why I became the Chief Dental Officer
Since qualifying from Queens University, Belfast in 1999, I can honestly say that I have never wanted to do any job other than to be a dentist. I have worked across many fields of dentistry including general dental practice, hospital dental service, prison dental service and community dental service and I have been actively involved with the NI Council of the British Dental Association (BDA). I have therefore been dealing with professional issues across Dentistry throughout my career and I understand the challenges faced by professionals and patients. For that reason, I am delighted now to take up the role of Chief Dental Officer.
I feel that dentistry as a profession has not always been valued in wider healthcare, and I want to change this. Oral health has such a significant impact on our overall health. Although we have made progress in reducing the burden of dental disease, I have worked with many patients who struggle to maintain good oral health, and I want to be part of the solution to this.
Dental professionals have a trusted role in healthcare, and I want to support this in policymaking and the wider healthcare agenda. I can see the huge pressures that our health services are dealing with, but that makes me more determined to ensure that Dentistry is part of the solution. Health inequalities are simply too burdensome on society, and in the 21st Century we can do better. But that takes commitment and realisation that Dentistry needs to work in partnership across health and with all stakeholders, including our regulatory body.
Effective partnership working – the Low level concerns agreement
The Low level concerns agreement is an excellent example of partnership working between the Department of Health, the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and the General Dental Council (GDC), with input from the BDA.
From 8 November 2021, we have introduced a new process in Northern Ireland for the re-routing of low-level concerns, that do not meet the threshold for the GDC’s fitness to practice process. The agreement enables the GDC to refer these concerns to be handled locally, using existing processes and ensures that low level concerns are addressed promptly with resolution sought and found in the most appropriate place. This is a positive move for Northern Ireland and highlights what we can achieve when we work together.
In the short term, I want to sustain oral care and access for patients, something which the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on. I am committed to addressing the unmet dental care need, and that needs a partnership approach between dentists, DCPs, the public, and other key stakeholders including the GDC. The last 20 months have been tough, but together we can support the workforce, because without the workforce, we will not have a dental service.Longer term, I want to improve oral health for the population, supported by the best evidence available. Supporting people to live a long and healthy life should be at the heart of healthcare. If I can be a part of that, and influence policy in a positive way, I’ll be happy.