Professional boundaries

How to maintain professional boundaries with patients.

The scene

A dental student treated an undergraduate on another course who had sought emergency treatment at the dental school. A few days later, the undergraduate got in touch and offered to buy the student coffee to say thanks. The student was initially pleased – but then had second thoughts.

DDU advice

In Standards for the Dental Team, the GDC says that, "You must maintain appropriate boundaries in the relationships you have with patients. You must not take advantage of your position as a dental professional in your relationships with patients."

It's better to avoid misunderstandings by discouraging gifts or hospitality from grateful patients. Their intentions might be wholly innocent, but it's not unknown for people to develop unhealthy feelings towards a healthcare professional who has relieved their pain or discomfort. If this turns out to be the case here, the student could regret they didn't nip the situation in the bud when they had the chance. 

The student dentist should politely but firmly explain that they need to keep relationships with patients strictly professional and are not interested or able to form a personal relationship with them. If the undergraduate persists or makes unwanted advances, they should speak with their personal tutor or clinical supervisor. 

What happened next

The student declined the offer of meeting for coffee, explaining that they were expected to maintain a professional boundary with anyone they had treated. The patient seemed surprised but accepted this explanation.

This is a fictionalised case compiled from actual DDU case files.

This page was correct at publication on 23/11/2023. 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.

Leo Briggs deputy head of the DDU

by Leo Briggs Deputy head of the DDU

Leo Briggs qualified from University College Hospital, London, in 1989. He has worked extensively in the community dental service including a brief period overseas. He has also worked in general dental practice.

Leo gained a masters degree in periodontology from the Eastman in 1995 and is on the GDC specialist register for periodontics. From 1995-2017 he provided specialist periodontal treatment in both the salaried dental services and private practice. He started working for the DDU in 2005. Between 2007 and 2009 he worked part time at the DDU and part time as a clinical tutor at the School for Professionals Complementary to Dentistry in Portsmouth. In 2009 Leo went full time with the DDU. In January 2016 he became deputy head of the DDU.