It’s not Just Drilling and Filling: What it Means to be a Dental Practitioner

Dr. Nicky Kilpatrick
Paediatric Dentist, Coach and Contributing Author

I was working with a client recently who told me that he was bored with being a dentist and wanted to do something else. His problem, he said, was what else could he do? ‘I’ve got nothing to offer … all I know is how to fix teeth’. My initial thought was ‘Is that really true?’.

After over 20 years as a highly educated, successful general practitioner did he really ‘only fix teeth’? So I challenged him to document everything he did in one working day and we met again to reflect on what he noticed. Of course he had ‘fixed’ a lot of teeth but, among other things he also; provided ‘orientation’ for an agency dental assistant, completed an initial examination for a phobic patient, finalized a complex multi-disciplinary treatment plan with a number of specialists, discussed staff summer leave and short listing for a new receptionist with the practice manager, contacted a sales rep about an incorrect order, phoned an unhappy patient, tried to contact his accountant and finally, after work, attended a scientific dinner meeting.

On reflection, it was obvious that he also had a wide range of non-clinical, more generic skills that are valuable and transferrable.

So if we think of ourselves as ‘just clinicians who fix teeth’, does that limit our personal beliefs that the other non-clinical skills do not matter?  Maybe! However, these skills and behaviours are a recognised requirement of us as professionals (http://www.psc.gov.au/what-is-a-profession). Furthermore, they are well described in the Australian Dental Council’s documentation, ‘Professional competencies of the newly qualified dentist/oral health and dental therapist/hygienist/ prosthetist’ (http://www.adc.org.au/index.php?id=14) and are replicated widely internationally.

Dental practitioners need a wide range of personal qualities, skills and knowledge across six domains:








Only one of these domains (Patient care) relates directly to the technical skill of ‘fixing teeth’. The remaining five when considered overall, set expectations that can feel vague and possibly irrelevant. But…mastery of these domains can optimise patient satisfaction, not least because you show that you can both think and that you care.

Two further facts are worth noting: first, dentistry is a stressful business and second, most ‘complaints’ are associated with some form of breakdown in relationships between the patient and the dental team. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that individuals make the decision to complain before any ‘problem’ or alleged ‘poor treatment’ has even occurred. So where and how can we, as dental practitioners, develop the skills to improve not only patient satisfaction (aka retention and practice building) but also in turn, enhance our own success as well as our sense of personal gratification and self-fulfillment (aka happiness)?

Out of interest, I scanned the scientific program of a state ADA convention and of the 22 advertised sessions, 19 appeared to focus on clinical treatment/s (i.e Domain 6, Patient Care) and maybe touched on Domains 3 and 5 (Critical Thinking and Scientific/Clinical Knowledge). Of the remaining three sessions; two loosely touched upon Professionalism (Domain 1) in that issues such as complaint handling and Informed consent were raised and just one appeared to address Domain 2, Communication and Leadership.

In this series of brief articles, I want to ask you: how we can support and develop ourselves? I will draw upon my experiences as a clinician, mentor and coach. We will discuss the role that we can play in the development of others, both clinically and non-clinically. I will explore what mentoring can mean for you, share examples from around Australia and beyond while encouraging you to engage in some self-reflection.

So, by way of a little homework, why not do what my client did?

1.  Pick a day in your week and diarise everything you do in that day

2.  Then think about what skills were required of you for each activity

3.  Take an example of one, non-clinical activity

√   What did you do well?

√   What would you like to have done differently?


Dr. Nicky Kilpatrick ACC BDS PhD, FDS RCPS FRACDS (Paeds) Grad Cert Ed Grad Dip Coach is probably better known as a paediatric dentist with 30 years clinical, academic and leadership experience in Australia and overseas. However following completion of a Graduate Diploma in Coaching in 2015, Nicky now also has a thriving coaching practice.  As an ICF Associate Certified Coach (www.icfaustralasia.com), she uses the framework and skills of coaching to not only facilitate individual professional and personal development but to also support broader cultural change.  Nicky is engaged by healthcare and academic organisations around the world, to support clinicians, academics, scientists and their managers to promote the healthy professional environments needed to optimise clinical, educational and research outcomes. For further information please see www.nickykilpatrick.com.au


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Would you like to know when new articles are published?