Use plain English to avoid confusing patients, DDU advises dental professionals

Dental professionals are being advised by the Dental Defence Union (DDU) to use plain English when communicating with patients and colleagues.

An article in the latest issue of the DDU journal explains that using plain English not only improves communication with patients but can help to avoid potential misunderstandings that can lead to a complaint or claim.

Leo Briggs, deputy head of the DDU, said:

'Jargon, acronyms and technical language are commonly used in dentistry. Because we are using the words day in day out, it can be difficult to distinguish what is and isn't jargon. For example, dental professionals all understand what composite, amalgam and radiographs are, but they are not words widely understood by patients.

'By making the effort to communicate clearly and concisely, dental professionals can give patients a greater sense of involvement in their own care. When you consider that communication issues are also a regular factor in complaints faced by DDU members, using plain English can also minimise the risk of a simple misunderstanding becoming something more serious.

'However, it's not only patients who will benefit from dental professionals adopting a plain English style. Avoiding acronyms and technical language in referral letters and other correspondence with colleagues can also help to avoid misunderstandings and save time in interpretation.'

Advice on writing outpatient clinic letters to patients in plain English from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges was published earlier this year. While aimed at medical professionals, the DDU explains that the advantages apply as much to dentistry as they do to medicine.

The Academy guidance explains that it is okay to use some medical jargon but that plain English should be used wherever possible. It recommends explaining acronyms because 'these are often incomprehensible to non-specialists as well as to patients'.

Examples of words commonly used by dental professionals that may not be understood by patients include:

  • amalgam - a material commonly used to fill teeth which is silver in colour
  • composite - an alternative filling material which is tooth-coloured
  • restoration - a filling or a crown
  • radiograph - X-ray
  • periodontitis/basic periodontal examination (BPE) - gum disease/a screening test to look for the disease
  • caries - decay in the tooth
  • UL5 (or another number) - the notation system used to identify teeth, in this case the fifth tooth back on the upper left of the mouth
  • temporomandibular disorder (TMD) - a condition affecting jaw movement.

This guidance was correct at publication 17/12/2018. It 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.