Professionalism in Dentistry

While defining it can be challenging, the importance of professionalism is indisputable. The RCDSO Code of Ethics states that dentists should “commit to the highest level of professionalism.” The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that “promoting professionalism” is a duty of regulatory bodies that “outweighs the protection of any commercial interests of professionals.” Professionalism is an indispensable component of the social contract between dentists and patients.

Studies have consistently shown patients place a high value on professionalism and feel more comfortable putting their wellbeing in the hands of dentists who are perceived as professional. Unfortunately, more Canadians agree with the statement “dentists are business people” than those who agree that “dentists are doctors.” The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how dentists can reverse that impression.

Professionalism leads to better patient care

Trust is the foundation of a successful patient-dentist relationship. A patient's level of confidence in the practitioner determines whether he or she will regularly seek dental care. Furthermore, a patient who believes a dentist is honest is more likely to accept the dentist’s treatment recommendation than one who is concerned the plan may be financially motivated. Similarly, studies indicate that patients are more inclined to discuss personal health information with dentists who are well-groomed, speak with a professional tone of voice and appear confident.

Embracing professionalism and avoiding pitfalls

Building trust with patients requires looking and behaving like a professional; however, other, less visible acts of professionalism are just as important. For example, patients develop trust when they know their personal information will be kept confidential and their ability to make fully informed choices will be respected and protected. Furthermore, dentists who always act in their patients’ best interests earn trust.

Professionalism also means maintaining appropriate and dignified boundaries with patients. Paying special attention to a patient, accepting lavish gifts or social invitations from a patient or innocently placing a hand on a patient’s shoulder can all lead to trouble. Practitioners should also be aware of the potential for and avoid allowing their personal interests to cloud their clinical judgement.

The “Dos” and “Don’ts” of professionalism in dentistry

Do:

  • Be truthful, courteous and respectful towards patients at all times.
  • Listen to patients and be empathetic.
  • Get to know the needs, desires and priorities of your patients.
  • Maintain clinical competency.
  • Understand and follow the rules that apply to the profession, e.g. the regulations under the Dentistry Act, 1991.
  • Be accountable for services provided under your direction.
  • Dress professionally and ensure office staff does the same.
  • Recognize your limitations and refer patients to others when appropriate.
  • Establish boundaries between your professional and personal social media presence.

Don't:

  • Overshare details of your personal life with patients: you should be focussing on the patient, not yourself.
  • Guarantee or promise a result: regardless of skill, things will not always go as planned.
  • Overstate or embellish qualifications: patients will feel betrayed if they think you have misled them.
  • Gratuitously criticise other dentists’ work: when patients hear dentists putting down colleagues, they may lose faith in the profession as a whole.
  • Routinely keep patients waiting: you may be busy, but so are many of your patients.
  • Be oversensitive about second opinions: other dentists will sometimes disagree with you—don’t take it personally.

Conclusion

Unprofessional conduct by dentists can shake the public’s trust in the entire profession and is a leading cause of malpractice claims. Dentists should challenge themselves and their colleagues to demonstrate professionalism in every aspect of their practice. Not only is this any health care provider’s obligation, it is also just good business.

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