A training year on pause – the impact of COVID-19 on foundation dentists

foundation dentistsLouisa Jarvie explains what life is like during lockdown for a foundation dentist and how she believes they will bounce back after COVID-19.

After the trials of dental school were over, the training wheels off (well almost), foundation dentists were finally let out into the world. As fledglings in our dental career we just got going when it came to a very sudden and unexpected stop as COVID-19 hit.

Finding our feet

Beginning our training year was both an exciting and daunting prospect. We were finally seeing patients ‘full time’, getting to practise everything we’d learnt for the last five years. All without spending hours waiting for clinical tutors or radiography. Equally, the idea of having to make your own clinical decisions was a little scary. What if we got it wrong? What if the root canal was short? And what on earth is the diagnosis for that emergency patient?

Six months in and I felt that I was starting to ‘get it’. I was finding conversations with patients a little easier, appointment times were getting shorter and I wasn’t calling my trainer quite as often. I was looking ahead, identifying areas that still need developing and starting to make plans on how to address them. Our study days had been brilliant, inspiring us with excellent speakers. We interacted as a close group, developing friendships whilst expanding our knowledge and progressing all the time. Then it all came to a halt.

My situation was one that many dentists will have found themselves in. After weeks of uncertainty, one Monday morning the practice owner called the whole team in. The practice closed with no idea when we would return. I called my patients and had a brief conversation with each in turn, reassuring them that we would sort their problems and apologising that I couldn’t say when that would be. Despite the strange circumstances our team rallied together; by the afternoon the practice closed.

Dentistry at a standstill

For the time being we have downed tools. The consequence is that we are missing a critical time in our development. Foundation year offers a unique opportunity to develop our clinical and diagnostic skills. All with the support of a trainer and without time constrictions or UDA targets. We have already lost four weeks in practice, and there is no clear indication when we will go back. We have received guidance and resources allowing us to use this time productively. But nothing can replace the value of learning through clinical work. Ultimately, this could affect the speed and capabilities we might otherwise have reached by the end of our training year.

In spite of the current difficulties foundation dentists’ positivity and willingness to help is staggering and impressive. Nearly all of us have volunteered to work at the Nightingale. Many have offered their services to 111. We are ‘on hold’ in case we are needed. In the meantime we’re keeping busy triaging patients within our practices.

Most commendable of all are those who are currently working in hospital. Some colleagues have volunteered to help on COVID-19 wards at Northwick Park hospital, as they were short of numbers. I’ve seen photos of them in their PPE and heard the stories they have shared so far. I am in complete awe, and think it is incredible how much they are doing to help on the front line.

Looking to the future

Our training year will end as normal in August. Thoughts have inevitably turned to what I’ll be doing next year. Do I become a DCT in hospital or an associate in practice?

COVID-19 has already impacted the pathway to DCT. I was preparing myself for the Situational Judgement Test in March and interview in April; neither of which went ahead as planned. After weeks of uncertainty and speculation, we recently found out that the revised application process would be based purely upon the Situational Judgement Test, to be taken at home in June. With private practice currently so unpredictable, I expect this will increase demand for hospital places, due to the stability it offers. Despite changes to the application process, for those keen to follow a hospital pathway, I have every confidence that they will still achieve their ambitions.

Applying for an associate position is a daunting prospect; how do you go about getting a job?

The lockdown has meant I have had extra time to work on my CV. So I’m more prepared than I would otherwise have been. However, a recent prediction in a Sunday newspaper that ‘a fifth of dental practices will go out of business’, is worrying. It’s not what someone looking for their first job wants to hear. It could create a very saturated market for associate positions. More dentists looking for jobs, and less jobs available. As the least experienced we may find ourselves bottom of the pile. I believe that we are and will go on to become excellent clinicians, gaining strength from this first period of adversity.

A final message of positivity…

There are many great things which I have taken from this COVID-19 induced pause. I’m using this opportunity to learn as much as possible, especially on the topics I know I need to improve. Currently, there is a wealth of resources available. Whether that be free webinars or learning opportunities provided by our training scheme. The whole dental community is joining together, ensuring we come out of this experience with better knowledge than before.

I am missing going into practice and interacting with patients every day (sitting on a laptop from nine until five is not something I enjoy), making me more certain than ever it was the right decision to become a dentist. We have long careers ahead of us. So this is merely a brief pause at the beginning. Normality will return and we will see our patients again. I am sure that once we’re back in practice we’ll rapidly make up for lost time.

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