Eddie Crouch opens up about the biggest challenges facing dentistry and his plans as the new chair of the British Dental Association (BDA).
How was your lockdown?
Eddie Crouch: I can honestly say I have never worked so hard. Up to 14-hour days on occasion, with multiple meetings and a steep learning curve on remote meeting facilities. As well as interviews across the media about the problems faced by the profession and for patients.
I was well supported by colleagues and assisted in triage, as well as working locally with NHS England to establish the urgent dental care centres with help across the West Midlands from the Local Dental Committees.
I worked with the BDA, staff and officers to try to help colleagues across the spectrum to access support – with the frustrations over lack of progress for those who relied on income outside the NHS.
In late March, I had my own run in with COVID. But thankfully, despite the nasty symptoms, I did not experience the issues that put some colleagues into hospital. But beyond that, I have put in every spare moment to the cause. Whether it’s been talking to members, officials or the media.
What are your plans as chair of the BDA?
Eddie Crouch: It’s vital we learn the right lessons from lockdown.
The last half year has been hugely challenging. But every BDA member of staff and every elected officer has had a common direction, facing a common threat. We have pulled together. I’m proud of what we achieved and I know we can build on this.
We have been rewarded with an increase in membership. Along with everyone on the PEC, we want this to be more than a transient trend. But we know we have plenty of work to do to ensure that.
Advice and support have been built from scratch, addressing the clear needs of our members. It enjoyed huge uptake because it was relevant, reliable, and constantly evolved. We extended that to non-members as we knew it was the right thing to do.
It has been horrifying to watch webinars and see information filter across social media based on mere guesswork. For me, that means ensuring our members remain the best-informed dentists in this profession, equipped with the tools they really need to thrive.
Likewise, COVID has provided a clear focus to every conversation – whether with ministers, officials, or the media. It has boiled down to the very survival of this service across all types of work colleagues are engaged in. We have stepped up as the voice of dentistry, and it rests with us to increase that influence as we move to rebuild.
In your opinion, do you think COVID-19 is the biggest threat to dentistry ever experienced?
Eddie Crouch: No question. Nothing in my time compares. The effects of this pandemic will easily outlast my first term as chair and must be the absolute focus of the whole organisation.
Parts of the service continue to face genuinely existential threats, and the health inequalities we have long wrestled with look set to widen. The choice now is to sit back and say ‘we’re doomed’ or do something about it.
The survey we carried out early in the pandemic made stark reading on the sustainability of services. Despite being successful in encouraging 100 plus MPs writing to Rishi Sunak advocating for the profession, we have received little reaction to date.
The pandemic does offer us an opportunity. Systems that were broken before COVID are unravelling and need to be taken down.
We cannot simply focus on firefighting to survive the next month, the next quarter or the next financial year. We need to point the way to an approach to dentistry and public health that can thrive for years to come.
Across the UK all aspects of dentistry are under threat. And in all of them it has shown that the previous NHS delivery was close to breaking.
Patients have seen what life is like without dentistry. So enough with sticking plasters – this is a moment for real reform.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing dentistry right now?
Eddie Crouch: We have a pandemic going hand-in-hand with a recession, and no part of dentistry seems immune. Owners and associates, CDS and HDS, private and NHS, students and teachers, our labs and suppliers, the whole ecosystem we work within risks breaking down.
Restoring services is clearly our number one priority, but it must be on basis that works long term.
How can dentistry be better supported? What do you want to see happen?
Eddie Crouch: The ‘Cinderella Service’ mindset in government must end. Colleagues in England have recently expressed concern over lack of access to the free flu jab. It may seem a small point but speaks to the single biggest challenge we face. We are frontline when it comes to redeployment but not when it comes to protecting the workforce.
It’s flawed thinking – it keeps colleagues excluded from programmes and strategies, just because that is the default setting. Yes, in some areas we have made progress. The Practitioner Health Programme is now open to all dentists in England. But we should not have had to fight to be included.
And progress will hinge on officials waking up to the role private dentistry plays. It’s not merely that departments across Whitehall keep failing to grasp that most practices operate within a mixed economy. It’s the simple fact that purely private practices make a huge contribution. Yet somehow it gets left to go it alone.
A current budget for NHS dentistry that allows only half of the population to be seen has absolutely no chance if many private colleagues go to the wall. A lack of government support to them makes no sense.
What do dental practices need to do as we prepare for a potential second wave?
Eddie Crouch: I know a lot of colleagues had to get builders in during the run up to 8 June. But in my view, we already had the fundamentals in place. The professionalism and mentality was there before COVID and will see us through.
I have not been surprised but immensely proud of the way the profession and dental teams have adapted to the massive changes to working life that have been thrust upon us. We had a proud reputation as safe services and have enhanced that.
Practices have continued to operate in the face of local lockdowns. As long as we can access the PPE, and the government does its bit, in my view there is no need to close our doors again.
Some previous BDA figures have spoken out against the association. What would you say to these claims?
Eddie Crouch: Responding to criticism as well as the plaudits is the only way we can grow as an organisation. No organisation cannot do more to improve but I don’t see an association that has been portrayed.
Certainly, over recent years many colleagues have raised legitimate questions about how the BDA reflects the profession it serves. And that is why we are already setting out to deliver equality, diversity and inclusion at the heart of our work as part of a move to reflect the membership we serve.
I don’t recognise a lot of the charges that have been thrown at us recently, but if there are real questions on transparency then I’m determined to engage with members and see what we can do to address them.
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