Research into a shared understanding of professionalism

Date: 20 December, 2021
Research into a shared understanding of professionalism

We have been working with dental professionals and patients to come to a shared understanding of professionalism in dentistry today. The research underpins our work to develop new principles of professionalism in dentistry and our review of standards and guidance.

This latest piece of research was commissioned from Community Research, and builds on the mixed-methods research on professionalism completed for the GDC by the Association of Dental Education in Europe.

The research included 20 patients and 10 dental professionals who shared stories of professionalism, to consider key components of professionalism, particularly where the views of patient and professionals may differ, and to reflect on the developing principles of professionalism.  

Key findings from the research were: 

  • Patients and professionals enjoy and acknowledge a degree of shared understanding in relation to professionalism. This is underpinned by expectations of good communication, trust, teamwork, knowledge and skill, and respecting patients as individuals.
  • Patients and dental professionals regard clinical expertise (knowledge and skill) as core to professionalism even though it is not always evident in the positive stories of professionalism shared by patients and professionals.
  • Communication is often used as a proxy for clinical expertise as patients judge a dental professional’s clinical expertise based on their ability to communicate treatment options.
  • Although there is much common ground in patients’ and dentals professionals’ views of professionalism, there are also differences, including the finding that patients’ views are firmly rooted in the interactions they have with dentists rather than professionalism as a holistic construct.
  • Patients predominantly regard themselves as patients rather than consumers, placing their trust in a dental professional and expecting appropriate treatment and advice in return. In contrast, dental professionals explain the patient-consumer dynamic as a spectrum (rather than giving a binary answer). Regardless, the patient-consumer dynamic is not thought to impact on expectations of professionalism.
  • Dental professionals appear more concerned than patients about business interests impacting on professionalism. They draw attention to issues with the NHS contract as well as market forces and put forward a number of specific examples to evidence their view.
  • Patients, who were primarily concerned about the professionalism of the interaction, show more leniency towards a number of out of work behaviours, often citing professionals being entitled to a private life (as long as it did not impact on the interaction). As a result, they were more likely to take a societal rather than a regulatory view of behaviour.
  • The research also confirms the contextual nature of professionalism. When rating statements, dental professionals and patients often questioned the context of a particular behaviour. There was a reluctance to view ambiguous behaviours as highly unprofessional unless there was a clear understanding of context.


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