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Surviving dental school: communication with colleagues

18 June 2021

Good dentists are good communicators – it’s that simple. 

Why is good communication so important? 

The more traditional ‘communication skills’ teaching has focused on the dentist-patient relationship, yet communication between colleagues in a dental practice is equally important.
Developing both your teamwork and communication skills at dental school will stand you in good stead as a dentist. Communicating effectively with other team members and colleagues is crucial, sharing knowledge and skills as necessary in the interests of patients. Dentists must work within their competence, seeking advice and assistance from senior clinical colleagues where appropriate.

The consequences of poor communication between colleagues

Our experience over many years is that mistakes in practice can happen as a result of poor communication. Although there are often many factors leading to adverse outcomes, it is undoubtedly the case that poor communication can result in inappropriate appointments being made, incorrect estimates and charges for patients, and referral letters being overlooked. These have clear potential for patient complaints, together with an associated impact on the team arising from complaints, claims and disciplinary investigations.

On occasion, dentists may need to act to protect patients from potential harm caused by inadequate systems or procedures, or as a result of another colleague’s behaviour, performance or health. We recognise that this is never an easy decision. If you need advice on the appropriate action to take, you should usually raise this with a supportive, senior colleague but you can also access expert dentolegal advice via our advice line and contact numbers can be found on our website.

Case study

Fiona undertook an elective project in Malawi under the auspices of a charity providing medical and dental care in rural areas. Language was a barrier for many of the older population and the supervising clinician acted as an interpreter for the village elder who had pain in the lower jaw.

The offending tooth was identified and an extraction of a lower first molar was agreed. Because of the poor periodontal condition, the extraction was not particularly difficult but the lack of bone resulted in the second premolar being unintentionally removed at the same time. The patient was very distressed to see two teeth had been removed instead of just one and he shouted at Fiona.

Once the local anaesthetic was working the supervising colleague had left Fiona alone and so she was unable to explain to the patient what was happening as she started the extraction. Eventually the instructor returned to find Fiona visibly shaken and the patient angrily shouting and spitting blood on the floor. Eventually the patient calmed down and the instructor explained what had happened and a pack was put in place. Fiona was very shocked by the reaction and wanted to discuss the problem with an English-speaking colleague. She called our advice line and we were able to reassure her before speaking to the instructor.

Learning points

• An elective period is often a hugely rewarding experience, and students will often find themselves practising dentistry in a very different setting to that of their university’s teaching hospitals. 

• Whilst it can be tempting to gain new clinical experiences, and other healthcare staff may be grateful for your assistance, the patient must always be your primary concern. 

• Working within your competence in an appropriate environment supported by senior colleagues will ensure maximum benefit for both you and your patients, particularly if you can communicate effectively. 

• Remember that we offer free elective cover and have a network of dentolegal consultants in different time zones who can offer support.

To talk to us about electives, advice on good communication or to discuss any issues you might be facing, call Dental Protection.