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Going from classroom to clinic is a steep learning curve for many medical and dental students. Modern day clinical practice involves complex decision-making, relying on interpretation and close observation. Beyond their technical skills, clinicians need to be able to deal with ambiguity, to think creatively, and to communicate effectively with their patients.

To equip students for the complexities of clinical practice, King’s Dental Institute has pioneered an arts and humanities-based approach to learning that it is hoped will enhance not only their clinical skills and student experience, but also their ability to care for patients.


The pilot Clinical Humanities for Dental Undergraduates programme aimed to give students an interdisciplinary perspective on their learning that drew on King’s location in the heart of the capital and London’s unrivalled cultural heritage. The programme was facilitated by the Cultural Institute, one of King’s specialist Culture teams working to broker relationships between King’s and the cultural sector.

To hone their observation skills, students visited London’s Courtauld Institute of Art to discuss multiple interpretations and learn to feel comfortable with ambiguity. A seminar in the Old Operating Theatre in St Thomas Street provided an historical perspective on the patient clinician relationship.

A ceramics workshop allowed students to explore the ambiguities of the unseen – dentists often have to make assessments through touch alone. By feeling objects and drawing what they felt, students were able to test their proprioceptive and discriminatory skills. Other seminars included working with an actor to improve non-verbal communication skills and with a screenwriter to consider complex decision-making, ambiguity and judgement calls.

Dr Flora Smyth-Zahra, senior clinical teacher at the Dental Institute and programme academic lead, said: ‘While fewer students are studying humanities subjects in UK secondary schools there has at the same time been a call for increased critical thinking and humanistic skills in medical and dental education.

‘The academic disciplines of the arts and humanities, steeped in subjectivity and interpretation, teach critical analysis, promote the contesting of ideas and foster creativity. Above all, they seek to enlighten our understanding of the human condition.

200x300px_dental02‘Considering professional learning from this interdisciplinary perspective, improves students’ critical thinking ability and improves how they cope and deliver care.

‘The course is a first within dental schools, and the developing Clinical Humanities model is now extending across health faculties at King’s and to Harvard University.’

Student feedback has been positive, citing increased confidence in their decision-making in clinical settings and improving their ability to deliver patient care. One third year student commented: ‘I personally gained a lot from the experience and I feel it should be compulsory, just as the psychology and sociology courses are. I think it is important for students to recognise the relevance of acknowledging and learning from humanities in order to improve clinical practice.’

As students at the top dental school in Europe they already benefit from state of the art clinical and technical facilities. This innovative programme also enables students to explore other parts of the university, to engage with London and to capitalise on London’s cultural offer – a distinctive feature of a King’s education.



Learn more about the Dental Institute and the Clinical Humanities for Dental Undergraduates programme here.


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