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Surviving dental school: working with patients

18 June 2021

Good communication is vital 

Consent and respect

Patients will not always be in a position to tell the difference between you, as a dental student, and a fully qualified dentist. This is especially true for those who are in pain, anxious or distressed. So it’s up to you to make sure they know who you are and that you clearly identify yourself as a dental student.

Good communication with patients is an important part of effective care and it is helpful to think about how your tone of voice and body language might come across. Remember that some patients may come across as more direct than others when describing their issues and decisions about treatment but it is important to ensure you communicate appropriately, effectively and sensitively at all times.

Patients must give valid consent to receive treatment undertaken by a student and be given enough information to make decisions about their treatment. Ensure that you explain the treatment you are providing and check the patient’s understanding. What seems obvious to you, may be something the patient is unfamiliar with and may need further explanation.

Our ethical codes direct that you should respect patients and treat them with dignity. Presenting yourself professionally, dressing appropriately, and being punctual, smart and alert are simple but important ways of showing patients and colleagues that you care. Try to be aware of your body language and take every opportunity to develop your empathy skills. Don’t forget about relatives, carers and those close to the patient, who should also be treated with the same consideration and offered support when needed.


It might seem obvious that patients’ health information must be kept confidential and only used for the purpose for which it was given, but what may be less obvious is that this duty of confidentiality applies to all the information you hold about them. This includes dates or times of appointments they’ve attended, or even the fact that they are registered with a certain practice. It can be easy to let your guard down, particularly when you’re away from the clinical setting or out with friends. Breaking patient confidentiality is an extremely serious issue. 

Remember that discussing clinical care in public may appear unprofessional and give the impression of breaching confidentiality, even if patients’ names are not used.

Case study

Lauren was a year away from graduating. She had seen a new patient in the clinic that day, and she told her boyfriend Matt about them. The patient was a woman who had presented with a large active cold sore on her upper lip. She was memorable because Lauren had to defer her dental treatment until the lesion had healed meaning that she had wasted her clinic time that day. Lauren had taken a photograph of the lesion on her mobile phone and showed Matt before he went off to play football.

After the game the team was drinking in the student union bar and Matt was showing his friends some pictures on his phone. He saw that the image of the woman with the cold sore had been copied onto his phone from a folder he shared with Lauren on the cloud.  Matt told the others what Lauren had shared earlier.

As Matt told the story, it happened that the patient in question came into the bar. She was easily recognised by one of the football players who verbally ridiculed her, calling her “infectious”. The patient approached the group of men and saw the picture of her on Matt’s phone sitting on the table.

The patient knew where the photo had come from and complained to the teaching hospital.

Learning points 

This case highlights the importance of rigorously maintaining patient confidentiality. Clinics and hospitals take special care to protect the patient’s privacy and support them with written protocols that must be observed. 

• Even though Lauren had not intended to share the image with her partner, the fact that a clinical image was taken in the clinic on a personal mobile phone device had led to this breach of data protection because of a pre-existing file sharing arrangement.

• There are significant risks around the taking of clinical photographs on your mobile phone and devices which can be lost or stolen and data or images transferred to other locations.

For more information or to talk to us about patient care, please contact Dental Protection.