The Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA) is expected to announce a reprieve for thousands of unregistered dental assistants nationwide just weeks ahead of a change in policy that could have left many open to criminal prosecution.
For hundreds of years, South African dentistry relied on unregistered dental assistants who are trained on the job to do its work.
In 2005, the HPCSA demanded that all assistants be registered with the body and undergo professional training. The move sparked a lengthy battle between the HPCSA and dentists who feared that the HPCSA demands would force many of the country’s scarce dental assistants to look for other jobs.
“We don't have enough dental assistants that would like to themselves go through official training,” said Maretha Smit, CEO of the South African Dental Association (SADA), which previously challenged the HPCSA’s demands in court.
“(Being a dental assistant) is not a profession that is seen as aspirational (or something) for someone to hang career aspirations on – it’s got a ceiling.”
She added that only four technical colleges currently offer dental assistant courses. These schools only produce about 120 dental assistants annually while the country continues to produce about twice as many dentists each year.
According to Smit, the HPCSA is expected to announce that experienced dental assistants will have four months to provisionally register with the HPCSA.
Those who register during this period will have two years within which to write an HPCSA board examine to officially complete their registration. According to Smit, dental assistants will get three chances to successfully write the exam, and their employers will be expected to train them.
She added that once the four-month window closes, the HPCSA will not register any dental assistant without formal training.
“We think this solves about 70 to 80 percent of the practical problems,” Smit said.
“The last thing we want is for dentists to decide to practice without assistants,” she explained. “There are concerns around the impact of that on patient experience and it’s one less job in an economy where we obviously need more jobs.”
Smit cautioned that the window will only take affect once the HPCSA has gazetted the final policy and following public consultation. In the meantime, it is unlikely that anyone will prosecute unregistered dental assistants or their employers, Smit noted.
Meanwhile, the HPCSA is allegedly bracing for an influx of registrations.
“We have had dental assistants who have tried heir utmost best to register and their payments have been lost and their papers have been lost, and then they’ve been scraped from the roll,” Smit said.
“What the HPCSA have done is that, as the board for dental therapy and oral hygiene, they are going to pull the registration function out from under administration … so that for this influx of dental assistants, they will have direct oversight.”
The HPCSA was unavailable for comment. – Health-e News