Op-ed

Is dental education enough?

Becoming a dentist is a journey. We spend years learning how to prevent, diagnose and treat oral diseases, in addition to how to meet the continuously changing dental needs and demands of our patients and the public. Dental education is essential because it allows us to gain the necessary knowledge and technical skills to care for our patients. Education fosters the abilities of student dentists and allows them to work closely with faculty in didactic work, sim lab work and in the clinic to learn how to improve patients’ oral health. 

However, is this dental education really enough? After dental school, are students competent in providing care to their patients?

Most of the challenges new dentists face have to do with leadership, particularly in practice management. These challenges can include: strategies of team recognition and appreciation, motivating staff with incentive programs, providing regular feedback and performance reviews to improve staff skills, and holding staff meetings to focus on training, customer service and practice enhancement. 

Thanks to my experience working in human resources and leadership, I have worked on some of my more “real-life” dental skills such as operations management, relationship building, marketing and strategic planning, communication and delegation, and improving patient experience. The aforementioned skills are easily teachable in a dental school and shouldn’t be limited to acquiring through having a job in another field. Students can learn the basic principles in the same way that they learn dental coursework.

ASDA plays a significant role in providing a platform for dental students to learn and practice leadership skills, which isn’t included in most dental school curricula. Various conferences and leadership opportunities are offered by the ADA for practicing dentists. I wonder why we only allow for these skills to be developed through outside organizations and/or after dental school. Learning these principles early while in school as a part of the curriculum would strengthen the future generations of dentists and leaders of our profession.

Leaders are not born but made, as they are forced to develop in a continuous process of self-study, training and education. If dental schools made leadership learning as much of a focus as crown preps in preclinical fixed courses, dentists would be better prepared to work in diverse environments and strongly lead a team. While organizations such as ASDA and the ADA can provide ample opportunities for leadership development, teaching communication skills can be a bit harder.

As a first-year dental student back in 2004 in Iraq, I remember one of my professors mentioning: “The school introduces you to dentistry, gives you the knowledge, training and skills to get your license and see your first patients. After that, you will begin learning some of the most important skills.” I wondered, “What are the most important skills? Why aren’t we going to be taught them?” 

A few years later, I began seeing my first patients in the school clinic. When I entered the clinics for the first time, everyone in my class was stressed out and anxious. However, in the senior clinic, I saw how confident most students were when talking to their patients. As I continued walking, I saw that others in the senior clinic were just as nervous as the students in my class and poorly managing their dentist-patient conversations.

After graduation and residency, I continued to observe how some colleagues have excellent practices and reputations of having great bedside manner, while others are still trying to cope with learning how to communicate with patients and the necessary skills in leading a dental office. After years of professional work, I have understood that it is my experience in jobs that require a combination of many interpersonal skills that have prepared me to communicate with my patients, rather than my dental education.  

An article published in British Dental Journal reports that most dentists assume they have the skills to lead a team upon dental school graduation but end up demonstrating otherwise. The article emphasizes that there are many skills that are not formally taught in dental schools that are necessary for success in the modern era of dentistry. Training programs that focus on helping students learn how to successfully build a team, communicate effectively with staff and patients, and enhance their decision-making skills should be considered a mandatory learning experience to ensure that new dentists are prepared as new health care professionals. 

Considering that many dental schools excel in training students to be successful clinicians, we must ensure that the importance of also equipping them with proper leadership and interprofessional skills is emphasized. Dental institutions should be required to integrate leadership programs into the curriculum so that graduates can have the right preparation to lead a team and serve their community. New dentists are the heart of the field and there should be no dental school graduate struggling to lead a team or communicate with their patients. Equipped with the proper skills following graduation from dental school, new dentists would have the ability to do so much for the field of dentistry. 

~Mohlab Al Sammarraie, Universidad de La Salle Bajío, Mexico ‘19

Mohlab Al Sammarraie

Mohlab Al Sammarraie has taken on extensive leadership on setting two successful projects with CDA and WREB advocating for students. His projects resulted in having the WREB exam taken outside the United States for the first time. He is now a site dental director for AltaMed community health in L.A.

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