What you’ve been waiting for

The transition from the pre-clinical to clinical stage of dental school is an exciting yet nerve-wracking time approaching many second and third year dental students across the UK at this time of year. The many hours of practice slaving over a phantom head give way to the prospect of treating your first real live humans!

At first treating your own patients may seem a daunting task, but it’s not beyond your capabilities; it’s a case of piecing together the training you’ve received over the last two years. It’s inevitable you’ll be nervous, but now’s the time to put those much talked about communication skills into effect to keep your patients at ease.

To the patient, no matter how immature and out of your depth you may feel yourself, once in a clinical tunic you are their dentist and it is therefore essential for you to behave in a professional manner. Speak to your patients with confidence and always explain procedures you are going to carry out to keep them informed.

Dental schools nationwide provide similar clinical introduction courses prior to your first patient contact, making your transition onto clinic as smooth as possible. This course will help you get your bearings in the clinical environment and get to grips with soon-to-be-routine

procedures such as collecting clean instruments, disposing of contaminated instruments/waste and using patient booking systems.

Accurate note-keeping is an important skill covered in detail at this time. As dental professionals, medico-legally we all have a responsibility to keep accurate, legible, informative notes; now is the ideal time to be getting into good habits.

Taking a medical and dental history is another essential skill which will be thoroughly practised. It is vital you are able to question a patient to attain an accurate picture of the problems they may be experiencing and to take a thorough medical history as this can directly affect the treatment planning and patient care. A surprising wealth of information can be attained from the patient if the right questions are asked; however, knowing which questions to ask is a skill that comes with practice.

Undertaking extraoral and intraoral examinations can also prove challenging at first. It can be tough for the inexperienced to spot caries and other adverse findings, but with practice you will become more astute. It is vital to keep to a system when performing an examination in order to systematically assess all of the patient’s soft tissues in the oro-facial region as well as their dentition to ensure nothing is missed.

Practice in the phantom head room is essential to develop technical clinical skills, however it must be remembered that it is only a model for real clinical dentistry. Cavities cut in the clinical skills laboratory are cut into virgin teeth to prescribed cavity forms, once on clinic you are governed by the extent of the caries. Real patients also have the added complications of saliva, a tongue and other soft tissues to get in the way, a frequently opening/closing jaw, an airway to drop elusive dental apparatus into and, of course, they can feel pain and discomfort.

Although clinical dentistry is often viewed with anxiety by students awaiting the start of their clinical dental careers, the transition is made as smooth as possible. Clinical dentistry can often be challenging and at times immensely frustrating; however, it can also prove to be incredibly rewarding. After all, it’s what you’ve spent the last two years waiting for!

Sarah Armstrong is a fourth-year student in dental surgery at Newcastle Dental School.

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