In at the deep end

It only seems five minutes ago since the government pledged to increase the number of
dental students in the UK by 25%.

In fact, it was 2004 and the first cohort of students will graduate next year and go on to face a year of Vocational Training.

Of course, the increase in numbers was widely welcomed at the time both by professional associations and patient groups, who all hoped that it would begin to ease
the well-documented access problems within the NHS.

So what can these new graduates expect from the future? Well, according to health minister Ann Keen, the new VT places will be available to graduates in areas of highest patient need. The initial 40 extra training places coming through in 2009 will be located in Yorkshire, the North West, the South West and the South Central, and the 170 dentists graduating every year from 2010 will also be allocated places according to oral health need or where demand is greatest.

The government is making available £32 million to meet the cost of Vocational Training for high numbers of dentistry graduates over three years, starting in 2009. This is additional to the £30 million the government is already investing each year in dental schools for the increased intake of students.

‘The NHS now has more than 4,000 more dentists than it did in 1997,’ says Keen.

‘We are continuing our drive to expand the NHS workforce by ensuring that every student dentist has access to Vocational Training upon graduation.

‘This Vocational Training will be targeted in those areas of the country where NHS dentists are in highest demand as part of our commitment to improving nationwide access and improving oral health.’

Compromising quality?
However, despite the increase in funding and focus on plugging the dental access gaps, not everybody is convinced about this announcement. The British Dental Association (BDA) has called for assurances that the plans will not compromise the quality of training that graduates receive.

‘Vocational Training is an important year that takes new graduates and provides them with a supportive environment in which to further develop their practical skills.It’s an investment in their professional capabilities that will benefit patients over the course of their careers,’ says Peter Ward, chief executive of the BDA.

‘Vocational Trainees should not be placed under pressure to complete large volumes of work in a bid to solve the growing problem of access to NHS dentistry. It’s important that the plan doesn’t dilute the quality of their training experience.’

So, is the quality of VT really compromised by this new plan? Indeed, it seems to mark the end of the freedom of choice that VDPs have enjoyed until now, and hasten the advent of a junior doctor-style system that could place graduates in an area that may not be their first, second or even third choice.

And it also begs the question of whether newly qualified dentists should be taking on the responsibility of providing much-needed care in areas that may have been suffering access problems for some time.

Wouldn’t more experienced colleagues be better placed for these kind of positions? Whatever happens for these new graduates, it is just a game of wait and see. All the government can hope for is that its new plans will tick all the boxes and provide more access while also training the kind of dentists that the British public demands.

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