What the future of dental education might look like

Modern dental educationDental student Ali Al-Naher talks to Dental Sky’s Joe Earl about the future provision of dentistry and dental education.

Global interconnection is improving everyone’s access to knowledge.

Within the world of dentistry, the opportunities for shared learning across continents, between leading seats of learning and within research communities has been without boundaries.

More recently, digital technologies facilitate rapid development. The internet plays a key role in supporting the exchange of evidence-based science as well as marketing the industry’s dental equipment and dental instruments.

Digital communications help the fast assimilation and adoption of innovative concepts, too, propelling dentistry into an exciting direction.

But, as COVID-19 brought the world to its knees, it exposed us to risks that went beyond the public health crisis. A quick SWOT analysis unearthed the weakness and threats to the globalisation of learning and innovation.

With the pandemic came obstacles few would foresee. Limited access to essential PPE coincided with rocketing global demand.

The UK’s dental supplies market briefly went into meltdown. I suggested at the time that on-going digital communication is key to any business recovery once the COVID-19 crisis eases.

Robust measures

These times require robust measures, with digital communications a prime facilitator. The internet supports the industry’s connection with dentists, the dentists’ relationships with patients and aids the development of new blood to the profession.

But, just as businesses were facing enormous global challenges. The education system too had its delivery undermined and we were all forced to think flexibly.

Many universities were quick to adapt when the pandemic closed their campuses, improvising to adopt online teaching as a ‘new norm’.

A recent study by the University of Birmingham and UCL explored the experience of converting modules from ‘physical’ to online learning delivery. Researchers conclude that key to overcoming challenges was the act of blending real-time ‘intensive’ online engagement with academics with ‘extensive’ online learning experiences supporting self-guided learning.

One suspects the experiences of dental students vary from institution to institution. This is as those responsible for BDS courses attempted to implement changes and overcome challenges posed by ‘distanced’ learning. Access to hands-on learning was inevitably of primary concern.

Ali Al-Naher is one dental student whose career came to a shuddering halt in March.

A fourth-year student at the University of Manchester, he is from a family of dentists. His father Bashar and sister Safa are dentists and, along with his other sister Sara, run the Care Dental Group in London’s Hammersmith. Ali is therefore well aware of the impact COVID-19 has on dentistry at a wider level.

With his learning moved to online and his BDS course in chaos, he remains pragmatic about the situation.

‘Huge positive’

‘We were able to adapt. The digital technology to adapt to a lockdown was readily available. Institutions quickly adopted it to move most learning online. And, while the pandemic opened us up to more risk, the shared experience has helped everyone learn how best to react to the virus, which has been a huge positive.

‘In fact, one of the potential upsides of the pandemic was the realisation that we could conduct theoretical learning from the comfort of our own homes. Moving lectures and enquiry-based learning tutorials to Zoom was seamless. Additional group tutorials help fill the gaps of what would have been clinical time.’

The drawback with the digital experience, however, was the potential for distraction and screen fatigue.

There were organisational issues that require improvement to give students more hands-on exposure. But the changes, he says, allow for enough patient contact to give him a ‘safe beginner’s experience’ of the various treatment modalities.

Ali believes that education needs big investment to support the UK’s future dentists. He suggests there remains room for further research and training on the delivery of information online by BDS course providers.

Expanding digital dentistry

Ali says: ‘The biggest impact was losing the opportunity to put any of the theory into practice for six-plus months. Our clinical exposure is a fraction of what it was.

‘I don’t believe there is a substitute for face-to-face learning to get dental students to the standard required by the GDC for us to graduate. There are technological advancements in patient simulators. Some of which institutions abroad have adopted. However, these require significant investment. One could argue that money is better spent on improving the existing clinical facilities to allow more patients to be seen for AGPs.

‘Examples of these improvements are upgrading the HVAC systems in open-bay clinical areas. And conducting functional risk assessments aimed at maximising the number of patients seen at a given time.’

However, he and his fellow students are still picking up a handpiece once a week and practising on phantom heads. So they are not deskilling.

Looking ahead then, universities will need to continue developing their learning environments. So that digitalisation both expands and complements the student-teacher relationship.

Ali agrees. ‘Adapting current environments to have similar capacity pre-COVID and with social distancing is the ideal. For the necessary face-to-face teaching, smaller tutorial groups arranged in “bubbles” are some of the measures that have already been put in place to facilitate this.’

Future proofing dentistry

Education has proven resilient in this pandemic. It continues to deliver training to the next generation of dentists, albeit virtually and in a socially distanced manner.

And whether we are dental companies overcoming logistical challenges to deliver FFP2 respirators, face masks, nitrile gloves, HVE aspirator tips and the like to the profession, or a dentist looking to safely deliver endodontics or restorative dentistry to patients, the profession needs to remain adjustable to change if we are to survive this pandemic.

Indeed, 2020 may well have nudged many of us within dentistry over the technology tipping point. This is only a good thing if we are to help future proof the profession for the long term.

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