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Are you making yourself clear?

25 July 2019

Are you making yourself clear?

Dental professionals are widely familiar with the consequences of falling short of the GDC’s standards of patient care. While the gold standard may not be the cornerstone of everyday NHS dentistry, the issue of patients’ understanding (or lack thereof) of the various aspects of their treatment is more critical than practitioners might realise.

Complaints of miscommunication between dentists and their patients have seen an increase over the years and pose a significant risk to one’s ability to practise – either through interim license restrictions or suspension. The burden thus falls on dental professionals to ensure they do not become collateral damage in the GDC’s pursuance of their statutory responsibilities to the general public.

According to the GDC’s latest annual report, failure to communicate effectively was the fourth most common reason for fitness to practise considerations at PCC and PPC hearings. Poor communication with patients can also have further implications such as misunderstanding about treatment plan and/or cost and potentially the validity of consent.

Consequently, the issue of communication between dental professionals and their patients has become more pressing than ever.

An article in a recent issue of the DDU journal explains that using plain English not only improves communication with patients but can also help to avoid potential misunderstandings that could lead to a complaint or claim, which takes much more time to resolve than to prevent.

Leo Briggs, deputy head of the DDU, said: “Jargon, acronyms and technical language are commonly used in dentistry. Because we are using the words day in day out, it can be difficult to distinguish what is and isn’t jargon. For example, dental professionals all understand what composite, amalgam and radiographs are, but they are not words widely understood by patients.

“By making the effort to communicate clearly and concisely, dental professionals can give patients a greater sense of involvement in their own care. When you consider that communication issues are also a regular factor in complaints faced by DDU members, using plain English can also minimise the risk of a simple misunderstanding becoming something more serious.

“However, it’s not only patients who will benefit from dental professionals adopting a plain English style. Avoiding acronyms and technical language in referral letters and other correspondence with colleagues can also help to avoid misunderstandings and save time in interpretation.”

Advice on writing outpatient clinic letters to patients in plain English from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges was published last year. While aimed at medical professionals, the DDU explains that the advantages apply as much to dentistry as they do to medicine.

The Academy guidance explains that it is okay to use some medical jargon but that plain English should be used wherever possible. It recommends explaining acronyms because ‘these are often incomprehensible to non-specialists as well as to patients’.

Examples of words commonly used by dental professionals that may not be understood by patients include:

  • amalgam - a material commonly used to fill teeth which is silver in colour
  • composite - an alternative filling material which is tooth-coloured
  • restoration - a filling or a crown
  • radiograph - X-ray
  • periodontitis/basic periodontal examination (BPE) - gum disease/a screening test to look for the disease
  • caries - decay in the tooth
  • UL5 (or another number) - the notation system used to identify teeth, in this case the fifth tooth back on the upper left of the mouth
  • temporomandibular disorder (TMD) - a condition affecting jaw movement



[i] GDC Annual Report and Accounts, [accessed 26.7.19]

[ii] Plain English for patients, [accessed 22.7.19]

[iii] Writing outpatient clinic letters to patients, [accessed 22.7.19]

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