Virtual elective – a ‘highly rewarding’ experience

virtual electiveLucy Walker discusses her unique experience of a virtual elective as she finished her fourth year at Newcastle University.

Traditionally the last couple of weeks of the summer term at Newcastle dental school would involve the fourth-year dental students embarking on their electives.

However, as I’m sure you can guess, the COVID pandemic dashed any hopes of the traditional elective going ahead.

Despite us all initially feeling very disappointed, we were offered a great alternative by the elective lead at Newcastle dental school, Dr Emma Robinson.

She didn’t want us to miss out on the chance to experience dentistry in different parts of the world. Or the opportunity to embrace new cultures. So she was working extremely hard to set up a ‘virtual elective’.

The programme was set up between three university dental schools across the globe. These were Newcastle University, Universitas Indonesia and Fiji National University.

Around 40 students participated alongside a team of staff members that contributed to making the experience possible.

The elective began in June with a Zoom meeting for everyone involved in the project. Following this we split into groups of three or four students from the different dental schools.

There was a time frame of four weeks to complete our chosen project. As this was the pilot scheme, it was up to each group to decide what they wanted to focus on.

Public health project

My group comprised Saint and Syafira from Universitas Indonesia, Losana from Fiji National University and myself from Newcastle University.

We decided that we were interested in exploring a public health route. So we chose the topic of: ‘The impact of COVID-19 on children’s oral health promotion’.

This is an area of dentistry that we all have a common interest in. And one that we haven’t yet covered to any great extent in our studies. So we decided that this would be something that we could all learn a lot from.

We agreed to meet on a weekly basis via Zoom. Each week we undertook different areas of research into children’s oral health promotion in our respective countries and considered what the impact of COVID-19 had been on this.

The aim of the virtual elective was to have something to present at the final meeting. So my group decided to create a Powerpoint presentation filled with information around our chosen topic.

This was a great opportunity for us not only to learn more about our chosen topic area, but also to get to know each other better and find out about life and being a dental student in other areas of the world.

Discovering different cultures

I personally did not know a lot about Indonesian or Fijian culture. So the virtual elective gave me the chance to make friends in these countries and to get to know more about them and their cultures.

It was interesting to find that the structure of dental school is very similar both in terms of what and when the universities teach us. But that there are also significant differences in certain areas. For example, Saint and Syafira from Indonesia told me that if their patients cannot pay for their student dental treatment, then it falls upon the student to pay for it (including lab bills)!

Another talking point between the four of us was, of course, the weather. All three of my group were very eager to visit England in the future (although were almost put off by the fact that a hot summer’s day in Newcastle averages at around 19°C compared with their 30+°C!). I am hopeful that once travelling becomes less restricted that we may visit each other and experience the different cultures for ourselves.

Another great benefit of this elective was that we had the chance to engage with dental professionals from other countries.

My group were fortunate to speak with two Fijian dentists who specialise in the children’s oral health promotion schemes in Fiji. This gave us a wider insight into the cultural differences in Fiji. As well as how they deal with high levels of childhood caries.

For me this was one of the highlights of the elective. It is something that I would otherwise not have the opportunity to do.

‘Highly rewarding’

The virtual elective was an experience that has most definitely benefitted myself and my fellow students in numerous ways.

Whilst it was not quite the same as travelling to the far corners of the world and experiencing dentistry in those countries first-hand, it gave us the opportunity to work on important skills such as communication and teamwork.

I think that it shows that dental electives have the potential to take a variety of different formats. This experience has proved to be highly rewarding. Without question it is a memorable period in my time at Newcastle University.


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