When Should Dentists Refer a Patient?

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Dr Martin Wanendeya: “The value in referring”

Dentistry has long been a demanding and fast-paced profession. New products, diagnostic methods, and clinical techniques are pushing the boundaries of modern treatment. The consequence of this is that it has become more and more challenging – although not impossible – for dentists to stay head of the curve, especially under an increasing workload.

The benefits of emerging treatment concepts can be difficult to reliably transfer to patients without first undergoing formal training and gaining sufficient experience in delivering these novel procedures. The inevitable result of this is a need for greater specialisation, with many clinicians now choosing to spend time honing their skills and knowledge in a specific field of dentistry.


Many patients are living longer and retaining much of their natural dentition into old age. As a result, dentists face more and more patients suffering from a variety of complex dental problems – some of which may require a multidisciplinary approach with the help of one or several dental specialists. If we consider this, it is easy to see the value in a dental specialist.

These clinicians have advanced knowledge and experience in the diagnosis and management of problems related to their area of expertise, enabling them to better identify and act on potential issues that may be overlooked, before they lead to more serious complications. This is among many other reasons why dental specialists continue to be highly sought after.

Nevertheless, make no mistake that the role of the general dentist remains crucial to the success of any treatment. Within a market where there is increasing competition to not only attract new patients but retain them as well, never before have general dentists been more valuable. They have overall control of a patient’s care and are essential to driving the treatment planning process.

Although a specialist may be able to carry out more advanced procedures, they might not necessarily have the most comprehensive overview of a patient’s long-term treatment. Additionally, specialists are unlikely to know the patient as well as the general dentist does, who will have developed a good rapport with them over time.

The differences between a general dentist and a specialist emphasise why these two clinicians complement each other. Ultimately, general dentists must appreciate what services a specialist can offer and, therefore, whether a referral to them is appropriate for the benefit of the patient. In turn, specialists must appreciate the central role that general dentists play in ensuring patient care is successful overall, from the initial consultation, right through to ongoing post-treatment care and review. Of course, referring, while it may seem straightforward, is not always so. Getting it right begins first and foremost with having a realistic understanding of one’s own abilities, which is as much to do with skill as it is attitude. Those who lack confidence unnecessarily refer cases that they might be more than capable of handling, while those who are over confident risk causing harm to both patients and their own reputation.

When to refer

There are really only a few instances when you might consider referring a patient to a specialist – if diagnosis is uncertain, for example. Most dentists would agree that some cases are rarely ever classic textbook situations, particularly if the histological state of the teeth and gums is not apparent.

Referring can prevent so much anxiety and suffering for both you and the patient, who is also more likely to appreciate that you have taken the initiative to seek help from a specialist.

Once diagnosis has been reached, you may encounter clinical problems before, during or after treatment has begun that require specialist equipment, materials or techniques that you are unable to provide. A referral would also be appropriate in these cases, preferably from a referral partner you can trust.

Some dentists are wary of referring patients for specialist care, but the most reliable referral partners will strive to minimise any concerns by developing a participative working relationship that involves communicating with you throughout the referral process in a clear and timely manner.

As with any endeavour in life, the golden rule is to seek help from an expert if you are ever unsure of how to proceed. Both general dentists and specialist clinicians can reap the rewards of a good referral relationship. By working together and combining their unique skills and knowledge, both practitioners can ensure patients receive the best possible care, which is fundamental to the overall success of treatment.


Dr Martin Wanendeya is an implant surgeon and co-founder of Ten Dental+Facial. As well as carrying out his own surgical work, Martin tutors and trains other dentists. He is currently a tutor at the Royal College of Surgeons teaches all aspects of implantology. In addition to this, he is a mentor for the Association of Dental Implantology, a study club director for the International Team in Implantology and teaches on the Implant Restoration Course.

Martin is also a key opinion leader for Dentsply Implants, assisting them in testing the viability and efficacy of their new products. Regarding referrals he says: “The award-winning Ten Dental+Facial clinic offers a seamless referral service, whether for dental implants, periodontics, endodontics, orthodontics, oral surgery, and cosmetic dentistry – among other specialist treatments.

“The friendly team have the knowledge and skills to handle both simple or complex cases. They will work closely with you to ensure you remain integral to the referral process, keeping you up-to-date as treatment progresses, before the patient is returned to you for ongoing care and review.”