Taking on a work experience student can be very rewarding, provided the appropriate steps are taken to protect patients, the student and the practice.

Undertaking work experience in the surgery can be very helpful for students thinking of a future career as a dental professional. But taking on a work experience student also raises a number of significant dento-legal issues for dental professionals.

When considering whether to accept students for work experience, you will need to decide on a case-by-case basis, as different students will show different levels of maturity. You'll also need to satisfy yourself that any student you accept is mature enough to understand the duty of confidentiality and to conduct themselves in a professional way. As with all other members of the dental team, the student will need to sign a confidentiality agreement.

You will then need to decide what elements of the practice's work are appropriate for the student to observe, such as in what circumstances they may sit in on consultations. You should ensure that the student is informed of and understands what they may be asked to do and the limitations of their role.

Patient consent and considerations

Ideally, you should advise all patients attending the practice that you have a work experience student who may be observing treatment. You could do this by placing a notice in the waiting room, explaining why you think it should be a valuable learning experience for the student, and making it clear that it will only be done with each patient's consent.

When seeking consent from individual patients before the consultation begins, it's important to explain who the student is and why they wish to observe the consultation. Patients also need to know that they can withdraw their consent at any stage, even during the consultation, and that if they refuse permission for the student to be present this won't affect the care they receive in any way. If the patient gives consent and a student is present during a consultation, it is a good idea to record this in the records, noting the student's name and status.

You will also need to consider that some patients may feel awkward about saying they don't want to have a work experience student present, and the effect that asking the question may have on your relationship with them. With this in mind, you may decide it is inappropriate for the student to be involved at all in consultations with certain patients - for example, someone who is already anxious about visiting the dentist.

As with all other members of the dental team, the student will need to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Legal obligations and advice

Before the student begins the work experience placement, you may need to seek specialist advice about your legal obligations (DDU practice principal members can access HR and employment law advice from Peninsula Business Services as a benefit of membership). The GDC expects dental professionals to, 'find out about the laws and regulations which apply to your clinical practice, your premises and your obligations as an employer' and follow them (Standards for the dental team, paragraph 1.5.1).

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has produced guidance to encourage employers to offer work experience placements. Not just making tea: a guide to work experience (February 2014) sets out the business benefits and includes case studies, as well as information about the support available.

You will also need to consider your obligations under health and safety legislation. Bear in mind that a dental practice is likely to be considered as a higher risk environment by the HSE because of the potential risk from exposure to radiation and clinical waste.

This page was correct at publication on 09/07/2019. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.