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News / July 15, 2020

How COVID-19 has changed the role of the dental nurse

by Gemma Forsythe

Gemma Forsythe discusses the importance of adaptability and the dental nurse is crucial to the changing landscape

Gemma Forsythe is a dental nurse in Northern Ireland. She discusses the importance of adaptability and why dental nurses are crucial to the changing landscape of dentistry. 


This is going to sound a bit strange but…I enjoyed lockdown!  I know that most people hated it and found it quite difficult but I saw it as free time that you will never get back and I wanted to make the most of it.  I took nice walks, had great fun baking and stood in as substitute teacher for my eight-year-old son, Tyler. I also started a course in British Sign Language which I’m finding super interesting.

I was still working during lockdown but for a while we were only able to triage over the phone. This was hard as we would rather be treating patients and getting them out of pain. But obviously this was not safe.  I am glad now that we can see patients – albeit non-AGP treatment and mainly emergencies. But it is reassuring knowing you are able to help people in some way again.

Key challenges

I think now, dental nursing has got that bit harder – this is the ‘new normal’ I suppose.  There are the challenges of increased pressure, more PPE to wear and more of a risk than there ever was.  Patient demand is also a challenge right now, especially as we cannot see the same number of patients as we normally would have before. Another problem to get around is communication whilst wearing PPE. Masks and face shields hide our facial expressions and muffle our voices.

I’m hearing of quite a few dental nurses at the moment who are leaving the profession because it’s all got a bit much for them, which is sad to hear.  I think it is so helpful right now to have a good team around you. People to rely on and for support – through the good times and bad.  You need people who you can go to and voice your concerns or ask for help when you need it.  This helps to make things less stressful. A problem shared is a problem halved!

Changes to the role

Dentistry is changing and evolving and so dental nurses must change and evolve with it. I think the great skill we have as dental nurses is that we are brilliant adapters. We adapt all the time to different situations in surgery and changes to the way we do things. The new way of working is something we have to adapt to. Although it may take a while to get used to, we will get there.

We now have nurses who are in surgery and a ‘runner’ dental nurse outside the room. This is in case the nurse in surgery needs something or a radiograph needs to be developed. The runner nurse also lets patients into the practice, checks their temperature, gets them to sanitise their hands then escorts them into the surgery for their treatment. They escort them back out again at the end of their appointment.

This is something that is new to us as we’re used to just leaving the room and getting what we need. Or just calling the patient from the waiting room. We have always been very thorough with our cleaning regimes but even this has stepped up a level.

Improving patient experience

Right now, people are full of anxiety and patients attending dental practices are no different.  I think it’s important to reassure them that we will do all we can do help and that we are still the same nice, friendly people underneath the layers of PPE!

I suggested to our practice manager that we could have our names at the top of our visors and a small photograph of us – without PPE. I think this is beneficial not just for nervous patients, but also for little kids who are scared looking at us! This also helps patients match a face to the person standing in front of them in head-to-toe PPE.

Maintaining good communication

Good communication is so important as a dental nurse. It helps form and maintain good patient relationships and helps to gain trust of patients when you can communicate with them effectively and put them at ease.  The amount of PPE we have to wear now does affect how well we can communicate.

It can be hard to hear someone talking through a mask and visor, especially for elderly people who may be hard of hearing.  Not all communication is verbal of course, but the amount of PPE can restrict or hide your normal body language.

Making good eye contact is important. Being responsive in the conversation can show understanding and your desire to help and acknowledging your PPE. And explaining to the patient that you are aware you look intimidating dressed the way you are but that you want to be able to help and look after them as normal can have a positive effect.

Another important point to remember when maintaining good communication wearing PPE is to speak clearly but gently, it is helpful to speak in a louder voice but not yelling.  A good way to try this out is to practise speaking to colleagues with full PPE on. They can then give feedback if you’re too loud, too quiet or if your body language is closed instead of open.

Advice for other dental nurses

My advice to other dental nurses during this time would be to try and stay positive. I know it’s so hard sometimes, especially when you’re having an extremely bad day! Know that it will get better. We will get used to the new way of working – the ‘new normal’ if you like – and it will soon become second nature. It will be like you never did it any other way.

If you have any doubts or concerns, voice them to your practice manager or head nurse. Don’t keep your feelings or worries bottled up. Taking care of your mental and physical heath is paramount and you need to give yourself a break. Prioritise looking after yourself.

Additionally, do things you enjoy outside of work. Go for walks pr meditate – whatever helps you to relax and switch off.  After all, we all need this occasionally and right now it seems more important than ever.

Gemma is a dental nurse working for mydentist in Portadown, Northern Ireland. She has been nursing for two and a half years and is now starting a course in Oral Health Education with the British Dental Association (BDA) in September.