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Interpersonal skills in clinical practice

04 November 2022

Dr Saba Khan looks at why clinical skills alone are not enough to succeed in dentistry

We spend our time at university to acquire theoretical knowledge and build on clinical skills to work towards our goal of becoming better dental practitioners. These years allow us to establish the foundations for commencing in the dental profession. In addition to technical skills, a core element for succeeding as a future health professional is to possess good interpersonal skills.

What are interpersonal skills?

Broadly speaking, it is an umbrella term that encompasses a set of skills that we use to interact with others in a formal or an informal setting. Some examples of these skills include verbal and non-verbal communication, being a team player, having the ability to empathise with others, one’s approach to conflict management, effective problem solving and decision making. Therefore, our interpersonal skills essentially impact how our message is perceived by another individual and their response to it.

The dental team

A common goal of the dental team is to provide the best services to attain the greatest possible outcome for the patient. Professionally, the dental team may consist of a dentist, dental assistant, dental hygienist, oral health therapist, receptionist, practice manager and/or dental specialists. It is imperative to understand and appreciate the role of each team member. This is because it will enable you to take a collaborative approach to patient management, which translates to achieving set goals in a timely manner and ultimately optimising productivity levels.

Ensuring open and honest communication with your team members plays a key role in building rapport and creating a positive work environment. For instance, as an operator you should be able to communicate with the auxiliary staff regarding your needs for any given appointment and develop a feedback system to recognise what works best for each member. This also assists with navigating and mediating challenging situations that may arise unexpectedly.

The patient

Interpersonal skills are integral for building a patient-clinician relationship. As students, it is easy to be focused solely on perfecting your clinical skills and overlook your communication with your patient in the chair. Taking the time to converse with your patient to learn more about them and their concerns is greatly valued. Subsequently, you gain their trust. Avoid using jargon to explain the diagnosis or treatment, complement your case discussions with the use of visual aids such as pictures, radiographs, or dental models if required. Using this approach to patient management impacts case acceptance and their continuity of care.

Teamwork skills can also be utilised in your interactions with your patient. You must work together with your patient to determine their dental goals and orchestrate an individualised treatment plan that addresses their needs. Take your patient’s financial needs into consideration and present all suitable treatment options, along with associated risks and benefits, to allow them to make an autonomous decision and gain informed consent before proceeding. As a clinician, you can continuously provide your services to ‘fix’ a dental issue as it arises. However, patient compliance is of utmost importance to reduce the risk of relapse and to encourage new behaviours conducive to optimising their health. You should feel confident having a discussion with your patient about their crucial role in maintaining their own oral health status and general wellbeing.

Opportunities at university

As a student, there are multiple avenues that you can explore to further build on your interpersonal skills. These opportunities include participation in extracurricular activities, part-time work, discussions with lecturers/supervisors, clinical placements and networking opportunities through social or academic events. It is important to acknowledge that some individuals may naturally be gifted with strong interpersonal skills, often referred to as “the gift of the gab”, whilst for others it may take time to develop.

During my time at university, there were barriers that I had to overcome to further develop my interpersonal skills. Personally, being part of my university’s dental student society (shoutout to BOHDS 😉) immensely contributed to boosting my overall confidence level. The key skills that I developed through my participation includes teamwork, leadership and conflict resolution, along with verbal and written communication.

Clinically, I observed the way my supervisors/tutors interacted with patients and picked up on their analogies to explain dental concepts to patients in layman’s terms. An important piece of advice that has influenced my interpersonal skills with patients, both during my time at university and at the workplace, is to treat your patient the way you’d wish yourself or your family member to be treated. Taking time out to answer your patients’ queries and to reassure them, especially if they have dental anxiety, is greatly appreciated by them.

In preparation for entering the workplace, I would encourage you to take the time to work on your interpersonal skills along with the clinical skills. Like practical skills, it is an area that always has room for continuous improvement once you finish your studies and there are some great Dental Protection workshops, webinars and podcasts dedicated to refining communication skills. In the eyes of your future employer, having good interpersonal skills early on in your career holds greater significance than your level of clinical expertise, as it determines whether you will be an ideal candidate for their team to ensure a harmonious work environment.

For more on interpersonal skills and many other topics, listen to our podcast series at 

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