Aberdeen’s Northern Lights
Before they finish their first year of studies at Scotland’s newest dental school, students are treating patients – almost two years earlier than on most other dental courses.
The speed with which the students are given hands-on experience is just one of the innovations of the new course, which is taught in a striking new building in the grounds of Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
With a waiting list of about 30,000 for NHS treatment in the north-east, Aberdeen was the obvious place to site the ground-breaking facility with its pioneering curriculum.
The four-year course for graduate entrants is patient focused and the clinical skills facility is just one of the high- tech resources in which the students learn their skills. There are also high-tech systems to allow the students to see exactly what the clinician is demonstrating and on which the students can be monitored.
When they have proved their competency at specific skills on the state-of-the-art equipment, they are given the earliest possible opportunity to use these skills to help patients on the waiting list.
Professor Jim Newton is director of the £17.7 million Aberdeen Dental School, which was delivered on time and under budget, and was officially opened by First Minister Alex Salmond in January.
When the Scottish Government decided to build the graduate entry school as part of its commitment to reverse the long-term decline in dentist numbers, it looked to the University of Dundee Dental School for expertise.
The government announced in the summer of 2007 that the first students – it takes 20 a year – would start in September 2008. A four-year programme was drafted and those involved in its delivery agreed it was the way forward for dental education in Scotland.
Professor Newton said: “It was the opportunity, starting with a blank sheet of paper, to develop a curriculum using past experience, good practice and educational evidence to change the way we educated and trained dentists.
“It has been built around the fact that the patient is at the centre of everything in the course, which is structured around six themes: general health and disease; dental health and disease; behavioural science and dental public health; law, ethics and professionalism; patient care; decontamination and infection control.
“We set a minimum qualification of a 2.1 in a biological or biomedical degree, or equivalent. The third intake has just started and the vast majority of the students are from Scotland and have degrees from Scottish universities. The average age is 27 and the majority are female.”
However before the first students started, Professor Newton and his colleagues had to design the complete four-year course. With no similar model anywhere else, everything had to be done from scratch.
“This is a unique course developed specifically for Aberdeen dental school,” said Professor Newton. “We have taken good practice, good evidence from other places in the UK and around the world.
“We have tried to inculcate up-to-date educational methods and assessment procedures so we know our students are fit to progress from one year to the next or to treat patients. We have moved away from many of the standard processes dentists in the past will have experienced.
“They are much more objective now. Outcomes are much more clearly defined. A lot of what we do, particularly on the clinical side, is looking at competency. We don’t let them carry out any procedures on patients until they have carried these out in the student laboratory or in the clinical skills facility.”
He said this was completely different to the students’ previous university experience, but they are embracing it enthusiastically.
“A great deal of it is practical sessions or presentations – it is much more interactive. It is a move away from what some people might regard as the traditional way of doing things. We try to limit the amount of didactic teaching and concentrate on those skills needed to join the profession. At the beginning of the first semester of first year, they go into clinical skills and begin to carry out practical dental activities and they love it.
“When I was training it took me until third year before I actually got to do any dentistry. They spend a day a week wearing scrubs, gloves and face masks and they carry out decontamination procedures – it is run as if it were a clinic. The students are highly motivated as they are treating patients in the June and July of their first year – assuming they have successfully completed all their assessments.”
He said the success rate is high and describes the performance of some of the students as ‘positively outstanding’.
“We also assess professionalism from the very beginning. There is a clinical dress code and a behavioural code in place which are key aspects of the professionalism strand of the course. We use the GDC’s document Standards for Dental Professionals and they sign an oath of professionalism at the start of every year which lays out how they should behave and how they should treat patients.”
The school is meeting two key dental issues for the north-east. It is treating patients from the extensive waiting list while producing 20 trained dentists a year, many of whom will remain in the area.
“If we were not here, these patients would stay on the waiting lists or try to register with a private care practice.”
For Professor Newton the experience has been an exciting challenge: “Who has the opportunity to come to a place like this, with a blank sheet of paper and build the first new dental school for many years?
“This is an exciting opportunity to develop a centre of excellence for dentistry which will be beneficial not only for Aberdeen and Grampian, but for Scotland as a whole.”