Let’s talk dental therapy

Gemma Forsythe speaks to Haley O'Neill about the problems in dental nursing

Following Rishi Sunak’s proposal to increase training places for dental therapists, Gemma Forsythe talks to Lauren Long about her experience as a therapist, and the public and profession’s perception of the role.

Recently, during a press conference unveiling the 15 year NHS Workforce Plan, in particular discussing dentistry reform, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suggested that dental therapists have a central role in improving dental services.

Whether it be that, when discussing this, Sunak stumbled over his words or whether people are just not clued in on what a dental therapist actually is, it made for pretty sad reading on twitter.

What is even more sad is that derogatory comments directed at dental therapists were coming from other members of the dental profession!

Concerning reactions

One tweet in particular stated: ‘There’s a reason it’s called going “to a dentist” and not “not a dentist”. OMG do these people consult any experts eg actual ‘dentists’ on this stuff.’

It seems that this person, due to Rishi Sunak’s slip up when discussing dental therapists, thinks that patient’s will be sent to psychologists for their dental treatment.

Similarly, another tweet said: ‘What does a dental therapist do? Do they talk to our teeth?’

There were a few shocking tweets regarding dental therapists taking on more dental work under their scope, such as, ‘Why accept a lower standard though? I would want to see a dentist. Why should I now accept a drop off in standards?’

A registered dental hygienist also tweeted, expressing her concern that dental therapists do not have proper training and are not much more trained than dental nurses. This resulted in quite a few comments from other dental professionals fact checking her claims.

What do dental therapists think about this?

This month, I spoke to Lauren Long – an award-winning dental therapist working in a private practice in Edinburgh, having graduated in 2008.

Alongside Lauren’s clinical role, she also provides clinical education for several leading dental companies and holds the position of therapist clinical director for the Pain Free Dentistry Group. This involves managing a group of almost 20 dental therapists and hygienists practicing in Scotland and the north of England.

Lauren won best therapist at the Dentistry Scotland Awards in 2022 and is a member of the editorial board for Dentistry Scotland magazine. She also sits as an ordinary member on the British Association of Dental Therapists council.

In addition, she is really passionate about pushing forward the role of the dental therapist as she believes they have so much to offer to patients and the profession.

Gemma Forsythe (GF): There have been a few ill-informed comments regarding dental therapists over the weekend, referring to Rishi Sunak’s NHS dentistry reform plans. With many people admitting to never hearing of dental therapists, do you see this is a positive for the dental therapy role as it has gained publicity?

Lauren Long (LL): Yes, I think we have to view this as a positive thing for the profession. Although the Prime Minister got our title slightly wrong, it brought discussion into the public domain, allowing us to educate the public about what it is we can actually do to help them.

There is quite a low public awareness of the role of the dental yherapist, although we have been around since 1959 as ‘dental auxiliaries’, finally changing our title to dental therapist in 1979.

The role that we can play within the government’s Long Term Workforce Plan remains to be seen, as there are still some barriers to dental therapists carrying out direct treatment. For example, exemptions for the use of certain prescription only medicines and lack of parity with our dentist colleagues on NHS benefits.

GF: What would you say to a patient who is concerned about visiting a dental therapist versus a dentist for the exact same treatment?

LL: I think this is where the dental team working cohesively is absolutely key! As mentioned, patients often aren’t aware of our skillset and the treatments we are able to carry out.

It is important when working with a dental therapist that the entire team knows about the scope of practice and can speak confidently about this to patients. Patients should feel confident in the clinician they are seeing for treatment – this applies to any member of the team. Being able to answer any questions they may have really instills this in my experience.

GF: There have been claims of a ‘drop off in standards’ referring to patients having dental care with a dental therapist instead of a dentist. What would you say in response to this?

LL: This really ties in with the previous point about lack of public awareness. There is a common misconception that dentists go to university whereas therapists or hygienists are trained quickly without the same depth of skill or knowledge being taught.

This is absolutely incorrect. In fact, when I trained, we trained alongside the BDS students – the same lectures, same clinical skill practicals, same clinical cases to be completed before graduation and standards of assessment. There really is no ‘drop off in standards’ between the two professions.

GF: Have you experienced judgment from other dental professionals, namely dentists?

LL: I am very lucky that I now work in an environment and with a group that has a great team ethos. All clinicians are treated as equals with our own talents that we can bring to the table.

However, in past roles I have experienced this, and I regularly hear from dental therapists who are still experiencing this. Most commonly, doubting that our skills will be up to standard or territorialism around treatments.

There can often be a feeling of separation between the two professions, whereas when we come together and collaborate fully with mutual respect and open channels of communication, it benefits everyone’s working day. It also makes the patient journey smoother.

I really hope to see the development of this mindset within the profession, with more dental therapists able to work to their full scope of practice and to flourish professionally!

You can follow Lauren on Instagram: @laurenatcherrybank.

Catch up with previous Nursing Matters columns:

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