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Dyslexia in dentistry

One in five people in the UK are affected by dyslexia to some degree.

Ella Levene
Ella Levene

As the most common learning difficulty, it is likely you are either working alongside someone with dyslexia or may be dyslexic yourself.

Dyslexia is a protected characteristic that affects people in different ways, so no two people will have the same strengths or weaknesses. The main symptoms involved affect a person’s grammatical awareness, verbal memory, and verbal processing speed.

Dyslexia impacts skills vital to working in dentistry. There is a commitment to a lifetime of continued learning, processing new information daily and a requirement for accurate and fluent written skills and organisational skills. The Equality Act of 2010 recognises dyslexia as a disability, so reasonable adjustments must be made to help those affected succeed in their career.

Difficulties in dentistry school

With a degree as content heavy as dentistry, the symptoms of dyslexia will not go unnoticed. Universities need to provide the right support for students. When it comes to dentistry, you are expected to read outside of the given realm. You will have to read textbooks and papers on your own, making the amount of content to digest quite vast.

As it often goes, my diagnosis was not until later in life. Having focused my efforts on numerical and formulaic school subjects, I had never struggled before and my dyslexia went unnoticed. It wasn’t until my first year of university, where I failed all my initial mock exams, that someone suggested that I should be tested.

When it comes to dyslexia, schools need to provide specific support to their students. Things like longer deadlines, targeted reading lists, allowing them to do exams on laptops if this is something that is useful to the student or a personal tutor who is aware of your specific difficulties and is available to proofread your assignments ahead of time, these can make a big difference in a student’s life.

Dyslexia in the dental practice

Dyslexia creates difficulties when reading, which can cause misinterpretation of information. In a dental practice, the issues this creates range from a simple mispronunciation of a patients name to fully-fledged problems like struggling to take medical histories, misidentifying medication, or struggling to create reports without spell checkers. These issues can negatively impact the patient’s quality of care if they are not managed or go unnoticed.

In dentistry, there is often a fear of being sued and we are constantly reminded of the importance of accurate note taking. Working with dyslexia, I often look back at the notes I’m sending to dentists I’m referring to, my own treatment notes or the treatment letters I’m sending to patients and must pay close attention to my wording and whether I’m getting the point across clearly. Especially with referrals, as the criteria is quite strict, I must ensure my writing meets those criteria and is grammatically correct. They would all be dyslexic mistakes, rather than my own carelessness, but a supportive environment is necessary to help manage them.

There are several ways to help manage dyslexia in the workplace. Instead of relying on written information, verbal instructions and speech-to-text tools can help dyslexics retain information more easily. Making space in your workday to read back your notes, and reading them out loud, can help you rethink the way you’ve structured sentences. Slowing down the process allows you to take some of the pressure off to have everything done in the moment. Mnemonic exercises can also be used to memorise specific terms relating to dental work, like commonly prescribed medications, or those employed during operations.

A supportive workplace

It is a legal requirement to provide reasonable adjustments in the workplace. It is vital to create an inclusive environment free from discrimination. This allows individuals to be transparent about their dyslexia diagnosis and how it affects them. The air of embarrassment surrounding the subject often stops people from disclosing their diagnosis.

Being transparent and honest with your practice allows colleagues to offer the support you need. It is essential for dental educators and employers to know the support services that are available and how to utilise them. Reasonable adjustments like staff training, teaching support and assisted technologies can all make a huge difference.

In my experience, simply carving out 15 minutes at the end of the working day to go over notes, providing a Dictaphone to help dictate the notes and having a practice manager read through letters beforehand, are small but important ways to create a supportive environment.

Celebrate the strengths of dyslexia

Having dyslexia does not have to be a solely negative experience. There are many strengths that come with being neurodivergent. As lateral thinkers, people with dyslexia tend to ‘think outside the box’ allowing them to find atypical solutions to issues.

It also allows you to relate to patients in ways that would not be possible otherwise. When encountering patients struggling to complete their medical history forms or receiving an email which is hard to understand, you can empathise with them on a different level. It opens your mind to embrace their differences. Especially with my dyslexia, I need to simplify scientific wording to retain the information. This allows me to relay said information to my patients in a language they will be able to understand, without jargon or over-complicated terms.

Dyslexia has affected my confidence, especially when applying to competitions or prizes that involve writing. There is still a perception that those with dyslexia cannot be intelligent, which often holds people back from being open and receiving the support they need. Dentistry can be quite stressful, it’s important to have an environment without judgement to take some of the pressure off striving for perfection. If your work is accurate and your notes are correct, there is no reason to over stress yourself. Do not let your day-to-day struggles take away from the joy of working in dentistry and reach out for extra support when you need it.