How will COVID-19 impact the current generation of foundation dentists?

COVID-19Onkar Mudhar gives his thoughts on how COVID-19 will have a lasting effect on the future of many graduating dentists.

Finding out we were returning to work through Twitter made for interesting discussion around the dinner table. We were told dentists would go back to work on the 4 June via the daily coronavirus update at 6pm. With not much warning beforehand!

Seeing the terms ‘dentists’ and ‘dentistry’ trending online was definitely unexpected.

There was a resounding tone of confusion amongst professionals within the field. How would it be possible for practice principals to collect enough PPE? To train staff and get their practices ready over one weekend?

With PPE shortages and masks going for triple the price, it almost felt ‘not right’ returning to work. Whilst half of us seemed naturally apprehensive to return to work, the other half seemed rearing to go. Excited to finally get back to work and doing what we love – dentistry.

Dentistry during lockdown

As a foundation dentist, this has been a very strange and uncertain time. For example, being sent an array of paperwork over the first few weeks of the lockdown, with imminent promises of deployment to the Nightingale, Northwick Park hospital or an urgent dental hub – which never came to fruition. Despite the deployment of colleagues of mine throughout the lockdown period, I never heard back. Instead I have been at my practice triaging patients since March.

The lockdown period has been intense! Telephone triaging daily is exhausting. More so than seeing patients face to face. With the general consensus that you’re unable to build rapport with the patient over the phone. Especially when compared with face-to-face consultations (I blame the poor phone line, not my bad jokes).

Speaking to colleagues my age at various points in their career (foundation training, core training and associateship), it seems like there was and still is a large element of uncertainty and anxiety on returning to work. Not to mention the sound of many hearts breaking as we shaved our beards for fit testing.

Clinical work

As a young dentist myself who was just getting into the swing of foundation training, I believe the main worry we have is the break from clinical work. A large amount of us feel as if we’ve lost our mojo. We have almost forgotten how it feels to pick up the drill. And the other half are concerned that their return to work might put themselves and their loved ones at risk. This is due to potential exposure to the virus itself.

Furthermore, the pandemic threw colleagues of mine carrying out their DCT in a hospital setting into the deep end. They found themselves on the frontline, after receiving a crash-course on how to assist the management of COVID patients. They have been helping to prone, swab, take bloods and watch vital signs, to name a few of their roles.

Heading back to routine dentistry

To add to this, this year’s current batch of final year dental students find themselves in a dilemma. Not having a physical graduation or send off has been a difficult end to their five years of hard work. Furthermore, with dental foundation looming and the new DFTs set to takeover on the 1 September this year, there are many questions around what the new norm is. How will these foundation dentists, who have been on leave since March, fare going back to routine dentistry? And more importantly, when will they go back to any form of routine dentistry?

Speaking to dental students has also been interesting. They inform me that although they will return to university imminently, they will practise social distancing on clinics. And they’ll carry out video consultations with patients before having a face-to-face appointment. This again raises the question asked every year: ‘Do dental students get enough clinical exposure throughout their degree?’ The answer to this is subjective. During my time at university, there was no shortage of patients and I left university feeling confident and competent. However, due to varying patient needs between dental schools, we cannot standardise clinical experience. This point may become even more pertinent when the new batch of fourth-year students begin to undertake their final year.

Time to be grateful

Although my experience as a foundation dentist over the last year has been brilliant, with a variety of treatment, not every colleague of mine has fared so lucky. What’s even more concerning is that a large number of foundation dentists (including myself) worry that when it comes to applying for associate jobs, practices will view the six-month ‘gap’ in our clinical exposure as a negative.

With governmental guidelines reducing social distancing to one metre, it seems likely that face to face courses and training within simulation labs on phantom heads will be able to swing back into action. This is definitely good news for everyone itching to get back to some practical work!

As we return to a new norm, I truly do believe that we are still finding our feet in the dental field. Although we now have PPE and a large number of practices are up and running, it does seem like a far cry from the dentistry we knew before COVID.

What the advent of this has taught me however, is that technology has come on leaps and bounds! We are able to do so much online – over video calls and conferences – that this could really be the way dentistry moves itself into the future.

Although video consultations are no thing of the past, they are becoming more common now in the post-COVID world of dentistry. The potential it brings is extremely exciting!

As a junior in the profession, the disruption to my clinical experience has been unfortunate. However, I do believe the time we’ve all had to reflect, grow as individuals and learn (from one another and online) has been invaluable. And I think it will make us all so much more grateful for dentistry once we are able to return full time.

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