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  • Karl Walker-Finch

Are we human, or are we dentists?



It was around about this time 16 years ago that I was submitting my UCAS application for dental school. Applications for entering into dental school still far surpass the number of places available, it was 10 applications for each available place “in my day” and I’m not sure much has changed.

One of the ways dental schools whittle down the numbers is by setting an ever escalating set of grades to achieve to be accepted on to the course. Currently at Liverpool Dental School where I trained, this is three A grades at A-level (it was AAB for me).

The result of this is that we are rewarding students who think logically and understand how to pass the tests that the school system has imposed on them. The situation is identical for medical students. The problem is that the most important attribute for a dentist or any healthcare worker is the ability to empathise and engage with patients on a human level.


The nuts and bolts of placing a filling for a patient is not overly complex, I would say it’s easier and safer to learn to place a good filling than to drive a car, say. And like driving a car, it’s not impossible to envisage a time when a robot can do it better than any human.

To understand the physiology of a tooth and pathological processes of for instance dental caries (tooth decay) is more complicated but it’s nothing that a computer can’t already do better than any human (this technology exists and is being used now in some practices).


The one thing that is not so easily taught or learned and is very difficult to replace with automation is the human element. The empathising practitioner that can connect with a patient, to understand the person and their story. To understand what is important to them and how that will influence their choice of treatment.

It is these so called right brain thinkers that will be the best dentists, not the ones who managed to equilibrate the most complex chemical equations on one day during their A-levels. Yet this, most important and irreplaceable skill set seems to be all too often overlooked when it comes to selecting the next wave of healthcare providers.

I don’t have the answer to this one. We are operating in an education system that doesn’t value anyone who doesn’t perform well in exams, in high pressure situations with a logical mind. Fortunately there are a great many dentists who have done well in their exams and are beautifully empathic and ethical practitioners, I wonder how many more potentially brilliant dentists we’ve lost out on by too heavily relying on exam results to guide applications.

Disclaimer: credit for the title of this blog goes back to 2009 to a student in my year at dental school.


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