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Tue 5 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Too much of a good thing

A heavily-regulated environment makes things hard for substandard dentists but also slows industry growth.

Few dentists would disagree that industry regulation is a necessary evil. In the United Arab Emirates specifically, dentists are trained and licensed from all around the world.

For the Ministry, making candidates run the gauntlet of licensing tests is the easy way to work out who makes the grade. There are perks to this approach - a heavily-regulated environment makes it harder for substandard dentists to make a living. It offers protection to patients.

What it also does is slow the growth of the industry by causing unnecessary bureaucracy, delaying clinical advances - implantology has barely made a mark in the region, compared to the US and European markets- - and pushing up costs of treatment.

This over-regulation is the biggest threat to the dental market today, stamped with all the hallmarks of an immature health authority. The Ministry has lost pace with high-tech changes in the marketplace, so is opting for a vice-like grip on licensing as a substitute.

Each time the waters are muddied by a new challenge - aesthetic dentistry for example; like a panicked parent the health authority takes fright and slaps down a new law.

And it's having a fundamental impact on the way dentists do business. If practices can't compete by spreading their services, they won't survive; and if they can't offer the latest procedures to patients, then patients will travel to dentists that can. The fact that the same government that is alarmed at the lack of dental access is complicit in the problems restricting it is absurd.

A move from over-regulation to self-regulation and liability is long overdue. Admittedly, the drawback of a light-touch system is that there is no cast-iron guarantee against failure.

The idea is that the semi-lack of restriction allows practices and the industry to flourish. The cost is that every so often there will be a failure. One answer is to help ensure that consumers can make properly informed decisions about dental services. If the time and effort the Ministry spent on regulation was diverted into promoting oral health, both patients and practices would benefit.

Better patient education, combined with a well-publicised complaints agency, would see more competition and lower prices - and customers voting with their cash. For a healthy industry, it's the most important goal.

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