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Surviving dental school: working with patients

Post date: 29/01/2020 | Time to read article: 2 mins

The information within this article was correct at the time of publishing. Last updated 14/05/2021

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 unwell, anxious or distressed. So it’s up to you to make sure they know who you are and identify yourself as a dental student.

The GDC advises that patients must give informed consent to receive treatment undertaken by a student, and be given enough information to make decisions about their treatment. 

The GDC also says 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, 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 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.

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

Shiri was a year away from graduating. She had seen a new patient in the clinic that day, and she told her boyfriend Ramesh about them. The patient was a woman who had presented with a syphilitic chancre on her tongue. She was memorable because she had a partly shaved head and a pink Mohican haircut. Shiri had taken a photograph on her phone and showed Ramesh before he went off to play football.

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

As Ramesh 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 abused her, making reference to sexually transmitted infections. The patient approached the group of men and saw the picture of her on Ramesh’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 Shiri had not intended to share the image with her partner, the fact that an image taken in the clinic was stored on a personal device had led to this breach of data protection because of a pre-existing file sharing arrangement.

For more information or to talk to us about patient care, call our advice line on 0800 952 0442.

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