Page last updated at 17:20 GMT, Monday, 16 February 2009

Young dentists put children first

By Jonathan Morris
BBC News, Plymouth

ith young girl patient
Parents are encouraged to be with young children in the surgery

Eight-year-old Sophie Waller died of starvation and dehydration after an extreme phobia of dentists.

Now dental students are being taught some simple techniques to allay the fears of their young patients.

Britain's newest dental school could make all the difference for children who fear dentists.

The Peninsula Dental School in Plymouth opened its doors in 2006 to the UK's first group of students who are learning as much by theory as practice.

So instead of poring over books for three and a half years on how to treat youngsters, students are rolling up their sleeves and getting on with it after six months.

Liz Kay and students
Professor Liz Kay with students who are treating patients after six months
The school's dean, Professor Liz Kay, told BBC News: "Dental skills have in the past just been read as the technical, doing skills.

"At the Peninsula Dental School there is absolute equality between technical skills and communication, psychology and sociological skills.

"We try to understand what the root causes of that person's anxieties are, in a 'we are in this together' role, rather than the treated and the being treated."

Prof Kay, who has written advice for students about how to ease children's fears, said that learning the basics meant 99.9% of children would feel at ease.

I have had children who will not come through the door of the surgery, but mostly, if you make it a game, or fun, they say, 'OK'
Prof Liz Kay, dean of Peninsula Dental School

"You have to remember what it's like to be five and speak in a language the children understand," she said.

"Words like 'dental chair' could be replaced by more child-friendly words like 'rocket man's chair'.

"You get down to their level and say 'what a nice dress you're wearing'.

"So instead of saying 'open your mouth' you say 'let's count your teeth'.

"I have had children who will not come through the door of the surgery, but mostly, if you make it a game, or fun, they say, 'OK'."

She said dentists also had to fight a perception that a trip to them meant a painful experience.

"Silly tales get told in the playground, there's stuff in the media like dentists called Mr Black and Mr Decker.

"It all reinforces this image that dentistry is a bad thing," Prof Kay said.

She added dentists could make surgeries friendlier places by putting out games and keeping appointment times and said parents could help by simply making sure their children cleaned their teeth and avoided sugary food.

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