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Ancient Dental Act needs new teeth

Published:Tuesday | February 24, 2015 | 11:05 PM

Like all professions, dentistry is constantly changing. We face new ideas, new materials, and new challenges continuously. To stay relevant and to serve our patients, the profession must continually revise its practice standards, ethical codes, professional conduct and its laws.

Today, professions such as dentistry work with governments to give structure and legal authority to the concept of self-governance. Together, we establish laws that govern professions, and make sure that regulatory bodies, such as the Dental Council, which sits in judgement over professionals, are filled mostly with peer professionals. The structure of the General Legal Council of Jamaica is a good example. Of its seventeen members, all are lawyers of various ranks. Similarly, in dentistry, seven of the nine elected members are in the dental profession.

But while dentistry here and worldwide now has new technologies, new practising standards, and new ethical codes of conduct, the profession in Jamaica is still governed by the Dental Act of 1972 - a 43-year-old document with just one revision made very early in the new millennium. That was an update to introduce the practising certificate to the registration process for dentists and auxiliaries.

Since then, efforts have been made to be proactive so that new developments would be covered by updated laws. In 1999, the Dental Council and the Jamaica Dental Association (JDA) organised the first retreat to look at revising the Dental Act. In 2005, the Jamaica Dental Association, the Dental Council of Jamaica (DCJ) and the Ministry of Health organised another retreat to create a new Dental Act.

The 2005 retreat appeared to be a success and a Draft Dental Act was written and agreed to by all. The council forwarded the draft Dental Act to the Ministry of Health for further processing, and all who contributed to this Dental Act expected the MOH would move it speedily through the necessary corridors of power so that Parliament would establish a new Dental Act by 2007.

This has not yet happened. Alarmingly, there has been no written correspondence from the Ministry of Health on the status of the Dental Act revision. Each budget year, pronouncements by the Minister of Health raise the expectations of the profession. Now we are just about one year removed from the last House of Parliament budget-time pronouncement by the present minister of health, and we are seemingly no closer to a revised Dental Act.

In the absence of a revised Dental Act in 2015, the profession is heading along an uncertain path, and our future is very cloudy. The MOH's Dental Council of Jamaica has been trying to address the deficiencies in the 1972 Dental Act by putting together new regulations that require only ministerial decree. Unfortunately, none of these have the consent of, nor do they involve consultation with the wider profession.

As an illustration of this, the website of the Dental Council of Jamaica now has as one of the recognized professions allied to dentistry the field of dental therapy! This field is not listed in the Dental Act, and no formal correspondence has been circulated by the Dental Council of Jamaica to sensitise the profession to this development. Most dentists don't even know what a dental therapist does.

A good Dental Act would allow the smooth and efficient functioning of the Dental Council of Jamaica to monitor and supervise the teaching and practice of dentistry and its allied professions. The 1972 act does not even recognise that the teaching of dental surgeons can occur in Jamaica. It gives no power to the DCJ in this area at all.

The Dental Council of Jamaica is a creature of the Dental Act, and an out-of-date act cannot help but create an out-of-date council. Another illustration of this is that the council has decided to introduce a new licensing examination for dentists wishing to practise in Jamaica and to establish licensing procedures for graduates of the local dental schools. But the council has not informed all the institutions that train dental students, so these institutions cannot properly inform their students.

Dentistry is a quiet profession because we are few in number and without significant financial clout. We are not given to loud public displays or blocking of roads. So despite repeated entreaties to all relevant authorities, and specifically to the minister of health, the JDA has been unable to get anyone to address our concerns.

As long as the status quo remains, the very foundation of the profession will be cracked.

n Dr Jeffrey Meeks is president of the Jamaica Dental Association. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and drmeeks@islandsmiles.com.