Phantom Heads

This is a post on how we were taught the basic hands-on skills in the dental school.


“I lay there every morning, dressed in sky blue, mouth wide open, for students to work on my teeth. They can make mistakes on me, I’m fine with that. I’d never complain. My rubbery cheeks contain the water spray, and the suction at the bottom of my throat drains the water away. I’d never choke or gag. I am the ideal experimental patient.” — Mr Phantom Head

Before we’re allowed to see actual patients, we had to go through this clinical techniques course in 2nd year, where we work on phantom heads as shown above. Here in the clinical techniques lab (CTL) we were familiarised with the instruments and basic dental skills. The skills acquired here were mainly on drilling & filling in 2nd year and root canal treatment in the first half of 3rd year. Most of these skills translate to actual procedures done on patients in the conservation clinic in 3rd year.

The CTL is a simulated environment, much like flight and military simulators. Here we were trained in the art and science of dentistry with little to no cross-infection risk or patient complications. Here we were taught to sharpen and hone our skills to near perfection and had to pass several competency tests. Only upon passing these tests were we allowed to see and treat actual human patients. The CTL training serves as a platform as we graduated from preclinical students to clinical students.


This picture above shows the plastic teeth and the attached “jaw”. The “jaws” are magnetised so that they can be attached to the phantom heads. In essence we’re working on plastic teeth on a plastic head with rubbery cheeks. The head can be moved about and placed at exactly the right spot. Despite being the closest simulation there is to actual patient contact, there are some aspects of dentistry that cannot be simulated. A few of these things are: the tongue moving about, the cheeks and lips being more obstructing than the rubber ones, and patient issues such as pain and sensitivity.

Despite already in clinics and treating patients, we are still required to use the CTL as we learn more and more skills in the upcoming years. I must say that the CTL is so very essential in our preparation prior to clinical education and is the best way, as far as we know, to train dental students before patient contact. However, treating human patients is a whole new ball game and that’s why we have three full years of clinical training in the dental course.

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