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Can I refuse to treat a dental abscess?

Three experts advise

A patient asks you to help with a problem that ought to be seen by a dentist. What should you do?

Dr Justine Hall

Dr Justine Hall: If you are uncertain what you’re treating then refuse

Prescribing for dental problems in primary care is a topic on which GPs are divided. Many feel that prescribing a course of amoxicillin, possibly with metronidazole, is simple enough and helps when dental appointments on the NHS are hard to get, especially if the patient is in pain. Those doctors feel they know that dentists

will almost universally prescribe this course of antibiotics, except in cases of allergy, and the treatment is not hard to replicate.

However, we must remember we are not trained in dentistry, nor do we have the necessary equipment and lighting to see clearly inside a patient’s mouth to establish whether antibiotics are the right approach or whether further intervention such as incision and drainage is needed – or indeed whether another antibiotic may be more appropriate.

A GP would be perfectly within their rights to refuse treatment if they were not sure what they were treating – as long as they signposted the patient to an NHS dentist. A fundamental part of GMC guidelines is only to prescribe within your own competence, no matter how much pressure a patient may exert on you. This has been underlined by recent BMA guidance on treating patients who present with dental problems.

Many surgeries carry a number for their local NHS emergency dental line. Alternatively, the patient can call NHS 111 to find this out. Many LMCs also offer guidance on this to their GPs, but this may differ up and down the country. If in doubt, contact your LMC or indemnity provider for advice.

Dr Justine Hall is a GP in Guildford, Surrey, and planned care clinical lead at NHS Guildford and Waverley CCG

Prof Azeem Majeed

Professor Azeem Majeed: Inform the patient that they need to see a dentist

A study published in 2016 reported that around 600,000 GP consultations annually are for dental problems. The reasons why people present to GPs with dental problems include the poor provision of NHS dental services in many parts of England and the £19.70 charge that some patients have to pay for a dental consultation.

If you decide that your patient may have a dental abscess, assuming there are no red flags (such as signs of spreading infection or sepsis) that would warrant an urgent referral to hospital, the patient should be told that they need to see a dentist. Explain that a dentist is trained to treat dental abscesses but you are not. The dentist has the expertise and equipment needed to assess, carry out suitable investigations (such as dental radiographs), and drain the abscess if this is required. The dentist can also treat any underlying problems, through procedures such as root canal treatment or a tooth extraction, to minimise the risk of the abscess recurring.

You should also explain that issuing an antibiotic is inadvisable for someone with a suspected dental abscess as it won’t address the underlying problem and may mask symptoms, potentially resulting in a worse long-term outcome. Also, it will encourage the development of antimicrobial resistance.

If the patient does not have a regular dentist, tell them they can call NHS 111 or use the NHS Choices website to find out about local services for emergency treatment. It is NHS England and NHS commissioners, not GPs, who are responsible for ensuring the population has access to adequate NHS dental services.

Professor Azeem Majeed is professor of primary care at Imperial College London and a GP in London 

Dr Marika Davies 330pxx330px Online

The medicolegal view: Carry out an adequate assessment before asking the patient to see a dentist

It is clearly more appropriate for a patient with a dental problem to be seen by a dentist. However, patients may sometimes experience difficulties accessing emergency dental services and may present to their GP instead. Refusing to treat a patient in this situation could give rise to a complaint, and you must be able to demonstrate that you have acted appropriately and in the best interests of the patient before recommending they see a dentist.

You should carry out an adequate assessment of the patient to establish the precise nature of their needs. You should be familiar with NICE guidance on the management of dental abscesses in primary care, as well as local guidelines on patients presenting with dental pain. If the patient is in pain you should provide advice and analgesia if necessary.

GMC guidance says you must always recognise and work within the limits of your competence, and refer the patient to another practitioner if necessary. The GMC also says you should prescribe medicines only if you have adequate knowledge of the patient’s health and are satisfied that doing so serves the patient’s needs.

You should emphasise the need to seek dental treatment and advise the patient how to access local emergency dental services. Good communication about the reasons for your actions will also help to prevent a complaint.

Dr Marika Davies is a medicolegal adviser at the Medical Protection Society

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Readers' comments (25)

  • Patients may have difficulty accessing a hairdresser but that does not mean we cut their hair in NHS time.

    How can we properly assess a problem we are not trained to manage?

    This is one area the defence organisations should be truly supporting us to reject- dentists spend 5 years on the head and neck. I would have thought the disparity in expertise is obvious.

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  • putting aside the exactly correct way to treat a simple problem this old chestnut instantly weeds out who should never have been a Dr.
    lets just change the question shall we?
    "An old lady or neighbour asks you to help her change her lightbulb as she is worried about climbing on a stool"
    do we say "f-off' I'm a highly qualified Doctor, i'm far too busy and important to do a simple task like that! call an electrician..." or hide behind some other lame elf and safety excuse annd decline.
    Anyone who has ever suffered with toothache knows how painful this can be, you should obviously use this opportunity to hammer home some helpful advice about brushing teeth and not eating sweets before explaining you are incapable of helping them.
    Special (educated) people like Doctors should have their own secret stash of antibiotics and tramadol for this sort of problem.
    (in case you just just dont care or your thought process is too algorythmically wired and inflexible to notice the correct answer,if you are kind and caring is obvious...)

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  • Dr Brigg.....I fail to see how this "weeds out who should never have been a Dr"..... I would not assess or treat a dental problem because I am not a dentist.... I would still describe myself as a kind, caring Dr.
    This is not about health & safety concerns, being "inflexible" or about being a "highly qualified Doctor" or "far too busy and important" .....but about NOT being qualified as a dentist.

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  • Dr Brigg, suggest you change the analogy, from change lightbulb to rewire house. Now do you see? Treating dental problems is not like changing a lightbulb, as it requires years of experience and training to be competent.

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  • unbelievably lame , but predictable responses!
    are you seriously telling me that if you were stuck on a desert island with bad toothache and a swollen jaw, but also happened to have a supply of suitable antibiotics and analgesia, you would not know what to do??!
    treating a dental abscess/infection is no different from any other infection. go back to basic principles.
    the 4 years of dental training are mainly spent on learning to do fillings bridges and restorative dentistry ,and orthodontics etc.(something i would not attempt)
    they also spend time learning a bit of medecine, ent and preventive health care.
    most would do a pretty good job of CPR.
    I could go on (and on), but its time some of us Drs took a hard look in the mirror and asked themselves if they are trying to help the patient or themselves...

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  • ps. it IS a lightbulb and not a rewire, that would be dental implants

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  • |Peter Brigg | GP Partner/Principal|29 Jan 2017 9:37am

    putting aside the exactly correct way to treat a simple problem this old chestnut instantly weeds out who should never have been a Dr.

    And there we have it - everything which is wrong with general practice in one sentence. The fact that we are such a divided profession that standing up for what we should and shouldn't be doing brings out accusations of being unsuitable for the role. No wonder the GPC has a hard time - how can anyone lead a bunch of GPs who have no self respect or self worth.

    Peter Brigg - no-one is saying we can't prescribe antibiotics or analgesia. We are saying there are other more suitably trained professionals to do it so we should be optimising access to them, not propping up their failure of service delivery.

    And no - I wouldn't change the old lady's light bulb when her perfectly capable son is living round the corner from her but she doesn't wish to bother him.

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  • NOTICE BOARD IN WAITING ROOM
    DO NOT MAKE APPOINTMENT TO SEE GP FOR DENTAL PROBLEM UNLESS YOUR DENTIST THINKS IT IS GP'S PROBLEM.
    WHY SHOULD WE ASSES DENTAL PROBLEM. TELLING THEM IT IS A DENTAL PROBLEM IS POINTLESS. THEY ALREADY KNOW BUT DON'T WANT TO PAY OR CAN'T AFFORD TO PAY.

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  • MPS advice horrible, just ghastly. The two doctors have it spot on, Just say no, not trained, not indemnified, not my problem.

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  • What would a dentist do, or be advised to do, if a patient consulted them with chest pain?
    Would they be expected to carry out an 'adequate assessment' or would they simply refer on?

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