The latest report from the Council of Heads and Deans of Dental Schools (CHDDS) paints a sobering picture of the state of dental education in this country.
According to its survey, the provision of high-quality dental education in the UK is under threat because so few people are pursuing careers in dental school education.
Professor Ivor Chestnutt, an honorary consultant in public dental health at the University of Cardiff, agrees. ‘The future of dental care and the dental profession in the UK is reliant on high-quality teaching and research. It is crucial that we attract bright young people into academic dentistry,’ he says.
The report warns that the low numbers of people filling full-time dental academic roles at the UK’s 13 dental schools ‘jeopardises current research initiatives and threatens the high quality of medical and dental education provision in the UK.’
It suggests that many students are put off clinical academic dentistry because the career path is seen as unattractive and difficult to negotiate. This is something the Department of Health (DoH), the UK Clinical Research Collaboration (UKCRC) and NHS Modernising Medical Careers (MMC) have all been attempting to rectify.
In March 2005, UKCRC and MMC released the report Medically and dentally qualified academic staff: recommendations for training the researchers and educators of the future. It contained a list of suggestions about how the career path for trainee dentists wanting to work in clinical research could be made easier.
The report’s suggestions have resulted in the development of new academic clinical fellowships, a new initiative set up to support people who want to pursue a career in teaching and research.
By applying for a fellowship, applicants will be provided with three years’ worth of funding to support them as they study for a higher degree. The idea is that it will provide dentists going through the early years of specialist training the time they need to develop academic skills too.
Once they have been awarded this, they can then go on to apply for a job as a clinical lecturer. Trainees will then have the opportunity to embark on additional post-higher degree research and speciality educational training.
Clinical lecturers wishing to participate in further study will need to apply for personal research grants to support their work. If successful, this funding will support them for four years of continuing education.
Professor Chestnutt believes this is a step in the right direction. ‘In the past, having to undergo research and highest specialist training all at the same time was a real challenge. The emergence of clinical fellowships, like those in Cardiff and those being introduced in other dental schools, should help,’ he explains.
A career in academic dentistry means that students could have a hand in moulding the dental practitioners of tomorrow and revolutionise the industry by working on groundbreaking research projects. In pay terms, it may not be as lucrative as general practice, but Professor Chestnutt believes that in job satisfaction terms it can’t be beaten.
‘The academic challenge is important, but the chance to interact with people from all sorts of backgrounds is what I really enjoy,’ he insists. ‘Academic dentistry has enabled me to be involved in dental projects all over the world.
‘As for the teaching, to see students that I previously taught as undergraduates now appointed as consultants is really rewarding, even though it starts to make me feel old!’
The CHDDS report is available to download from www.chms.ac.uk. For those requiring more information about applying for academic clinical fellowships and clinical lecturer posts, visit the Research Capacity Development Programme website at www.nccrcd.nhs.uk.