Outreach is the dental education buzzword of the 21st century. And as more dental schools embrace this new way of preparing their students for the working world, its pioneers are further improving their programmes.
Sheffield School of Dentistry was one of the first to implement an outreach programme and it is expanding its uses as a learning tool to the community. It has recently completed a three-year pilot on outreach, funded by the National Dental Development Unit (NDDU). Its aim was to measure the effectiveness of outreach and to compare the student experience of learning with and without an outreach element in their course.
The results were very interesting, as the school’s dean Professor Trevor Walsh explains: ‘Largely we found that outreach is amazing for students, as they appear more confident, are able to plan better and genuinely enjoy taking part in it,’ he says.
‘In fact some of our students who experienced outreach have now gone to work in the areas they did their training in. This is great, as the areas are those of great dental deprivation, so desperately need the services of newly qualified dentists.’
The pilot’s success has prompted the school to expand the programme and it now plans to include six months of outreach training for fourth-year students in a few years’ time. ‘At the moment our outreach programme extends into community clinics, access centres and PDS practices for six-week blocks,’ says Prof Walsh. ‘But the expansion to our programme will see it being rolled forward, and students will spend longer in outreach.
‘Once the current first-year students reach their fourth year they will be doing six-month outreach placements, where we will rotate them through the different types of dental situations. They will do four days in a practice or clinic for a two-month block, then they will have one day back here for didactic teaching and for us to check on what they have been doing.’
Prof Walsh has nothing but praise for the support the school has received for the programme from the local community, the strategic health authority, the PCT and the dental public health consultants. He says there has been a real ‘can-do’ attitude among all stakeholders and he credits a large amount of the programme’s success to this teamwork approach.
But he doesn’t buy in to the view that outreach only helps plug the gap in local dental services, believing the situation is more complex. ‘We see the educational value of outreach but from their point of view they don’t just support it because of the immediate gains in treating people who find it difficult to get access to dental treatment,’ he says.
‘You have to look long term, at the fact that students who do outreach will already be prepared for the type of experiences they are going to have at work before they leave dental school – and that is a serious advantage.
‘There are figures to suggest that three experienced dental undergraduates can do the work of one dentist. So if you put four undergraduates into a dental practice and a dentist is supervising them, they are actually doing more work than that dentist would be able to do on their own.’
Another major change that Sheffield School of Dentistry has seen recently is the increase in the number of students it accepts on its BDS and dental hygiene and dental therapy courses. Prof Walsh admits this growth puts pressure on resources but cites a number of projects that have been developed or are being considered to ensure everyone gets equal access to the school’s facilities.
He says: ‘We are expanding our facilities to accommodate the increased number of students. We plan to put a fourth side onto the school building, the hospital is going to be refurbished and the clinical and lecture theatre expanded. Obviously having a larger outreach programme helps to lift pressures on resources as well.
‘We have a lot of inter-professional education at the school. We have had an integrated first year with the BDS, dental hygiene and therapy students for a while and we also mix up the tutors so therapy tutors teach BDS students and vice versa,’ he says.
‘We have found it quite useful, as some of the dental students used to think they were the bee’s knees, whereas now they are working alongside the hygiene and therapy students who are sometimes better than them, so they learn to respect them more.’
One of the most important things to Sheffield, says Prof Walsh, is the student experience. The school is keen to ensure all its students not only finish dental school as highly skilled professionals but enjoy their time there as well. Asked to sum up the dental school in a few words, he says, ‘Small, friendly, caring and sometimes a bit crowded – but I’m happy with that.’
With a school so ready to adapt to the changes of the modern profession, that’s a pretty good description.