By multimedia producer Suzanne Elliott
The family of an 81-year-old man who took his own life say he was driven to it after fighting for more than a decade for compensation over botched dental work that left him in agony.
Clive Worthington was awarded record compensation for failed implants he had done in 2008 that caused him so much pain he struggled to eat or sleep. But he never received a penny of the £116,000 (£86,000 in damages plus £30,000 costs) he was awarded by a UK court because of a loophole in dental insurance.
Last September, the father-of-two took his own life.
His family believe the pain he endured for 14 years coupled with the stress and frustration of a system that he felt had failed him at every stage contributed to his death.
Mr Worthington had been forced to travel abroad for affordable dental work that was unavailable on the NHS to fix problems with his teeth. But rather than easing his discomfort, the procedure left him with nerve damage and broken teeth.
A hidden catch in how dentists are insured means they are considered to be fully covered by the General Dentist Council (GDC) through what are known as mutual societies. Wholly owned by their members, these mutual societies are not insurance companies but offer professional discretionary indemnity as part of its membership benefits. This means that successful compensation claims by patients are not guaranteed to be paid out.
Dr Eszter Gömbös, a UK registered dentist who carried out the failed implant treatment on Mr Wothington, attempted to rectify the issues with his teeth but finally told him "I can't do any more".
ITV News has approached Dr Gömbös for comment.
She suggested he seek remedial work elsewhere - she even gave Mr Worthington, a retired joiner from Harlow in Essex, a tool to give to another dentist, telling him she was "at the end of her expertise", his daughter, Gina Tilly, told ITV News.
When attempts to claim for the work he needed through Dr Gömbös's insurance failed, the family started what would be a long road to claiming compensation to cover the remedial work Mr Worthington needed to find relief from his pain.The process was a "nightmare", Gina said, that would drag on, with Mr Worthington suffering throughout.
The case eventually reached court.
"Again, the whole court process was more stress and expense for Dad - he had to pay thousands and thousands of pounds just for a report to say how bad a job she'd done," Gina said.
"They needed that evidence, but again, dad was all the time in pain.
"On top of that, the stress and the effort, and throwing more money into things that have already been expensive without any guarantee that it would all work out."
Mr Worthington's claim was successful and he was awarded what was then thought to be one of the biggest compensation for dental negligence in the UK.
But his ordeal was not over.
A devastating loophole in UK dental insurance regulations meant Mr Worthington would never see a penny of the money.
Gina says this final blow had a huge impact on her dad and contributed to his death.
"I think in the end it's a major thing that contributed towards him feeling completely helpless and like he was in so much pain that he didn't feel like he wanted to carry on.
"He couldn't really get the help that he needed."
The GDC requires all dentists (both NHS and private) to have professional indemnity in order to be a member. But Dr Gömbös - who practised in the UK - did not have full professional insurance cover.
A full insurance policy means that, in the event of a claim, the dentist is protected and the patient can be confident they will receive compensation if they are awarded it.
But Dr Gömbös was only covered through her membership of the Dental Defence Union (DDU). The DDU say say their discretionary indemnity meets the GDC’s requirements on appropriate indemnity/insurance.
Chris Dean, managing director of the dental law partnership, and a dentist himself, said the problem lay with the "acceptability of dentists being members of a mutual society by the General Dentist Counsel as amounting to appropriate indemnity cover".
"These mutual societies are more than 100 years old, and they come from a time when dentists knew best, as doctors and dentists clubbed together to support themselves and protect themselves in these."
He said it is an "anachronistic system" that "doesn't provide any kind of certainty about existence and cover for the patients and ultimately, that's the issue".
"Apart from healthcare professionals, I don't know of any other areas of commercial activity in the UK where being a member of society is good enough to protect third parties," Mr Dean continued.
“And that's the point because it's patients who can't get anywhere with their claims - they can run a claim or they can have a successful outcome for the claim but it can't be enforced if the dentist doesn't have assets or is not in the country."
The reason why this issue persists, says Mr Dean is the legislation and "lack of political will" to change it.
"The General Dental Council is given the power to decide what amounts to appropriate cover...basically the law says 'dentists must have appropriate cover'."
"The General Dental Council has decided that it is appropriate cover to be a member of a mutual organisation," he said.
But Mr Deans argues "discretionary cannot be appropriate".
"And discretionary is the absolute cornerstone of what these societies are because otherwise they will be insurance companies and things have to be regulated. And they are completely unregulated - they're a members' organisation."
A statement from the DDU said: “We are unable to comment on individual cases. We would however point out that the DDU is part of a not-for-profit mutual membership organisation which provides its members with indemnity for clinical negligence claims for treatment provided in the UK and Ireland.
"It is rare that we are unable to offer our members support: over the past five years we have assisted well over 99.5% of members who have approached us for support with claims and other legal matters.”
A spokesperson for the General Dental Council, said: “Patients must be able to seek compensation in the rare event that something goes wrong in their dental care, and it is deeply frustrating that weaknesses in the current legislation caused the system to fail in this instance.
"We encourage the Department of Health and Social Care to accelerate their work to review and update the existing provisions, which we as regulator can then apply.”
Gina is determined that no other else should go through what her father went through.
“I’m still yet to understand how this is allowed to happen. It appears the GDC has chosen to support unregulated dentist societies over the patients it is supposed to protect. It claims to be acting within the legislation but from what I understand there is strong cause for debate around this," Gina said.
"My Dad’s case shows the devastating impact this choice can have. I wish the GDC would do the right thing now, rather than opting to wait to be told it isn’t OK after a government consultation. The evidence is already plain to see. It has happened to others and it will continue to happen until a change is made.”
She remembers her father as "somebody who made everybody laugh".
"I think anybody who knew him would say that he was probably one of the funniest people they knew.
"At his funeral, there were people out the doors. He was still friends with his school friends... He was a real character.
"He usually saw the funny side of things - I think a lot of people probably didn't realise how much pain he was in because when he did muster the energy to go out and do things he could seem like the life and soul.""He wanted to be living his life to the full," Gina said but was held in him back in his final years by the pain.
There will be an inquest into her father's death in October where Gina and her brother will get the chance to write a "life letter".
Gina says it is "very clear" to her that the pain from the dental surgery and the stress that followed was a major factor in him deciding to do what he did".
"The main thing was the pain, the chronic pain from this and he also had back pain, all compounded by the stress of the struggle to get justice.
"He felt helpless.
"I think if we'd been able to get the help that he needed or, some kind of resolution, that things might have been different.
"Instead it must have felt like he was just falling at every single hurdle."
She said: “It’s too late for my Dad but I hope sharing his story can lead to change that might protect others. I know that would have given Dad some comfort," Gina said.
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If you have a story involving compensation around dental work please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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