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Surviving dental school: communication with colleagues

30 June 2021

The most successful dentists have to be good communicators – it’s that simple.

The more traditional ‘communication skills’ teaching has focused on the dentist-patient relationship, yet communication between colleagues in a dental practice is equally important.

Spending time developing both your teamwork and communication skills at dental school will stand you in good stead as a dentist.

Effective communication with other team members and colleagues reduces the potential for error and arguably contributes to better patient treatment outcomes.

The consequences of poor communication between colleagues

Our experience over many years is that mistakes in practice do happen as a result of poor communication. Although there are often many factors contributing to adverse outcomes, it is undoubtedly the case that poor communication can result in incorrect appointments being made, incorrect  estimates and charges for patients, wrong patient identifiers being collected/used leading to the wrong record being used (same surname wrong date of birth) and referral letters not being sent. These clearly have the potential to generate patient complaints, together with an associated impact on the morale and efficiency of the team arising from complaints, claims and disciplinary investigations.

Very rarely you may see something that requires you to take urgent action 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 an extremely difficult situation for a dental student to be faced with. If you need advice on the appropriate action to take, you should speak to a member of staff immediately or follow the university/dental school policy for reporting patient safety issues. As a student member of Dental Protection you can also access expert dentolegal advice via our advice line.

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 displaced 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. 

• While 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 our support and advice line on +27 11 484 5288.
Discover more in the 'Surviving dental school' series here