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From university to workplace: how to make the big move into the real world

06 September 2021

Dr Saba Khan provides guidance on managing the clinical transition from university to the workplace.

You will achieve multiple milestones as you approach the completion of your studies. Academically, these include consolidating the skills and knowledge that you have acquired over the years and being able to work towards independently applying it clinically. 

Professionally, one of the biggest milestones that you achieve will be securing your first job as a dental practitioner. The initial thought about commencing clinical work in a professional environment can be daunting at first. We have all experienced this thought at one stage or another, whether it be on our first day of university or the first day of clinic as a student. This can be attributed to our fear of the unknown. While transitioning from university to the professional environment, it is important for you to have confidence in the knowledge that you have gained at university, and you should be able to trust your ability to implement it in a way that achieves the best outcome for your patient. 

Getting the most out of clinical placements

The clinical placements at university gradually allow us to utilise and further develop our interpersonal and clinical skills under the supervision of our clinical demonstrators. Our clinical demonstrators provide a safety net for us. They are there for us when we need them for guidance about our clinical approach or even when we require them to bail us out when we are stuck. They offer a plethora of clinical knowledge from their experiences, and we have the luxury of receiving constant feedback from them to improve. 

During your first few days at work, you may initially be taken aback by the lack of constant supervision. The patients that you see may require complex treatment planning involving a multidisciplinary approach or they may want a second opinion. It is therefore important to ensure that the workplace you choose has some form of support system or mentorship available for case discussions. Establishing a good relationship with your mentor and having regular discussions about your strengths and weaknesses is imperative. From a personal development perspective, you should not hesitate to ask for guidance from your mentor or other colleagues, as they will be able to provide you with the support you need to ease into the working environment and improve the quality of work you complete. 

Developing your interpersonal skills is crucial. At university, we tend to be concentrated on perfecting our clinical skills and easily neglect focusing on our communication with our patients or staff members around us. From a personal point of view, patients value your ability to communicate well with them more than your level of clinical expertise. At the end of the day, your empathic approach and ability to explain the diagnosis or procedures in layman's terms to your patient plays a key role in their acceptance of any treatment you offer and their continuity of care. 

You should be able to confidently discuss the risks and benefits of any given treatment option along with the costs involved. The latter may take some practice to develop as we do not get a lot of exposure to discussing finances with the patients at university. Any form of communication with your patient should also be documented well as it plays a key role in appropriately attaining informed consent prior to providing any services for which you will be accountable. Building rapport with your staff members is also of utmost importance. Ultimately, taking the teamwork approach will assist you with achieving the goals set out for the day and ensure patient satisfaction. 

Compared to the student clinic, you will see more patients back-to-back in one day to provide a range of dental services. This can initially be overwhelming; therefore, time management is another vital area to work on. Organise your appointment book in a way that allows you to provide treatment in a timely manner, while ensuring that the final quality of your work is not compromised. As you settle in and develop a routine, you will naturally see improvements in your time management and overall productivity levels. 

As a new graduate, you are bound to find yourself in new challenging situations which you must be able to navigate around and manage, often within a limited timeframe. These situations can range from managing a clinical procedure gone wrong to dealing with patients with unrealistic expectations or those who may express any form of bias. Communication plays a key role in managing those situations.

My own experiences

Personally, most of the interactions that I have had with patients during my time at the student clinic were pleasant. Those patients showed no hesitation when they were asked to be treated by a student with limited clinical experience. I was quite surprised by my first interaction with a patient who expressed bias against inexperienced clinicians. I had a limited amount of time to manage this as the patient presented in pain and had dental anxiety, which was stemming from past bad experiences, specifically with young clinicians. 

The approach I took to work around the patient’s generalisation that older dentists were better at providing dental care came down to good communication. I acknowledged the patient’s concerns and informed them that I will not be completing any procedure without their consent. The option of being treated by a more experienced dentist was also presented if they did not trust my ability. I also had a thorough discussion about the rationale behind my diagnosis along with my treatment plan. With a lot of initial hesitation, the patient consented to proceed with the treatment for pain relief. I followed up with the patient a few days later to get an update on how they were doing: the patient was grateful for the treatment provided, as the main cause of their dental concern was not properly identified in the past. The outcome of this scenario was gratifying because it contributed to changing the patient’s judgement about trusting the capabilities of a young clinician.  

The initial clinical transition from university to the new workplace is a stepping stone towards building your career. It is important to be aware of your scope of practice and focus on building your confidence in the basic clinical and interpersonal skills first. Participate in professional development programmes to further complement this. Some plans may not go according to your wishes; however, treat these as a learning opportunity to figure out what works best for you. Lastly, build a supportive network and ensure that you maintain a good work-life balance. 

Dr Saba Khan is a 2020 dental graduate from La Trobe University and Dental Protection’s Young Dental Practitioner Representative for 2021. Saba has started off her dental career working in public practice in a regional town of South Australia. She enjoys all aspects of general dentistry and has special interests in preventative and restorative dentistry.

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