Dr Tom Clarke

For dental professionals, the very nature of their work brings a level of inevitable risk in this era of infectious disease.

Dr Tom Clarke (BBiomed 2011, DDSc 2016) is an Emergency Dentist at the Royal Dental Hospital of Melbourne (RDHM), where a typical day oscillates from simple restorations to complex root canal treatments and oral surgery.

Every patient is a new challenge, and care is as much about treatment as it is about developing rapport, understanding medical histories, and diagnosing their concerns. For Dr Clarke, who has worked across several settings, from standard leafy suburban private practice to a remote FIFO role in South Australia, it is the complexity of emergency dentistry that he finds most rewarding.

Nonetheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has only elevated the difficulties of everyday clinical work for dental professionals. Working in patients’ mouths and performing aerosol generating procedures are unavoidable aspects of dental practice. Dr Clarke has been dealing with the heightened risk of COVID-19 transmission, which has meant wearing uncomfortable N95 masks, face shields, and hot gowns while performing procedures that are challenging at the best of times.

Furthermore, he explains how “simple things like communication have become more difficult as it has become appropriate to wear masks all throughout an interaction. Verbal skills are in my opinion, invaluable for patient communication and these are hindered with a mask!”

In periods of high community transmission, there have even been restrictions on the use of certain tools like ‘the drill’ or ‘handpiece’, forcing some innovation and on-the-spot thinking.

Dr Clarke underlines the rapid adaptations his team have made as a result of the pandemic. Telehealth has been the order of the day in the health sector, and dentistry is no exception. Dr Clarke reflects that “If there was one health sector that would struggle to move to a virtual environment I would say it would have been dentistry.

But the Teledentistry program is working well at RDHM, providing advice to patients on what is considered urgent, what they can do for pain at home, and generally reducing the traffic flowing through the hospital to reduce COVID risk.”

The opportunities for innovation in dentistry give Dr Clarke hope to enact future change. When asked what keeps him awake at night, he describes being confronted daily by a high incidence of preventable disease: “we live in a very fortunate society, but healthcare outcomes could be (and should be) better for all Australians. It’s sad for example, to see a child that requires multiple, preventable dental extractions that will likely lead them down a pathway of lifelong dental complications.” He sees the importance of health leadership to solve these bigger picture problems that translate into everyday clinical encounters.

It is perhaps this inspiration that sees Dr Clarke back at the University of Melbourne pursuing an MBA. Growing up in Perth, he had always been naturally attracted to the institution, where he completed his Bachelor of Biomedicine followed by the Doctor of Dental Surgery. With the foundation in biomedical sciences, he chose to build on this with a more clinically focused degree. Now Dr Clarke hopes to refine his skills in leadership and management and use this strategic thinking skillset to lead healthcare teams, make a difference and help others.

This teamwork mindset is one that Dr Clarke encourages current students to cultivate at university and beyond. His motto is “network, network, network and creates connections with as many other students as you can,” noting that it adds tremendous value to the experience both socially and academically. A piece of advice he offers that holds true to the collaborative environment of his workplace today is that “a group of minds is better than one.” It is a timely reminder that collective energy, cooperation and synergy are invaluable in steering us through dark times.