Risk work in dental practices: an ethnographic study of how risk is managed in NHS dental appointments

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Ideas about disease risk underpin many preventive health strategies. These have assumed even greater importance in recent years as health policies place a growing emphasis on personal responsibility. This is reflected in new national contracts for National Health Service (NHS) dentistry that emphasise informing patients on their oral health risk status to persuade them to be accountable for their health. Thus, ‘risk’ is now central to the practice of dentistry, particularly primary care delivery. An ethnographic study in dental practices in England looked at how risk is acted on in dental settings. 368 dental appointments were observed in five dental practices over a year. The analysis shows three interrelating forms of risk work. Dentists position risk work as administrative to gain consent, translate risk through temporality to encourage action, whilst protecting rapport and their professional reputation through interactional risk work. This qualitative study demonstrates that the everyday nature of risk work in NHS dental practices is often implicit, defensive and focused on social interaction rather than the explicit discussions of individual lifestyle risks that policymakers assume. The study contributes to the literature on ‘risk work’ by illustrating how health professionals use risk to manage situationally sensitive contexts.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
JournalSociology of Health and Illness
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jul 2020