By Zoe Levenson, final year dental student, University of Leeds, UK
Before lockdown, one of my patients commented that he was having difficulty understanding me. I came to the realisation that although I was speaking at my usual pitch and volume, which most patients can understand without issue, the sound of my voice being muffled by my face mask was causing the patient to struggle to understand me.
Reflecting on this experience, I realised that as clinicians it is our duty to ensure that our patients can always hear us clearly and comprehend our meaning, or else we cannot hope to gain true, valid consent. This is an issue of increasing topicality since COVID-19.
The introduction of mandatory face-coverings in indoor spaces has led to an interesting phenomenon, where many individuals consciously suppress the urge to remove their face coverings upon experiencing difficulties with communication. Non-verbal communication plays a major role in social interactions. We communicate with gestures, body posture and facial expressions, all of which can be obscured by PPE – so it is no wonder that patients may misinterpret or misunderstand us.
As part of my own personal development, I am going to focus on speaking more slowly, taking time for correct pronunciation, and speak at a louder volume than usual to compensate for ambient noise and PPE.
To conclude, this is an issue I believe that all dental professionals should carefully consider. We should remember that each patient will have a different hearing ability and level of comprehension. Whilst some patients might be able to plainly understand you, others may struggle, hence it is necessary for us to adjust and adapt our approach on a patient-by-patient basis. I believe that we must make a conscious effort to improve our communication and enunciation in order to overcome the barriers that PPE may create and ensure our patients can always understand us clearly.
Congratulations to Zoe Levenson for winning our “Reflecting on a complaint” blog in partnership with Dental Training Consultants. The winning blog, chosen by Dental Protection’s Dental Director Raj Rattan, showed excellent insights into Zoë’s personal experiences, and how she dealt with and learned from these.