A life-long adventure

19 August, 2011 / Infocus

From the fairways of the West Country to the shores of Newfoundland, the new dean of the Dental Faculty at The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh has certainly taken an interesting route to get to his new post.

Originally from Exeter, Professor Richard Ibbetson, who is also the director of the Edinburgh Postgraduate Dental Institute, grew up with dreams of making it in the world of professional golf. However, by the time he turned 17 he realised, with some disappointment, that he wasn’t going to make the cut, so he turned his attentions elsewhere.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Richard enrolled at Guy’s Hospital Dental School in London, and qualified in 1974. But, after a couple of years in practice in the West Country, he came to the conclusion that general practice wasn’t for him and decided to pursue a postgraduate qualification.

However, the young Richard needed to find a way to finance his studies. During a chance meeting with an old tutor – who happened to be from Glasgow – he learned of an organisation in Canada that was looking for medical and dental professionals to live and work out there. Importantly, in Richard’s case, the money was good and he worked out that a two-year stint across the Atlantic could finance his first year back at university.

The only catch, and the main reason why the money was so good, was that he was heading out to one of the remotest parts of the developed world – Newfoundland and Labrador, the easternmost province in Canada. Richard discovered that many American and Canadian medical and dental professionals refused to work that far north, and so the province was forced to import UK dentists and doctors.

He was recruited by the Grenfell Mission, originally a Methodist body set up in the early 20th century to provide medical care to the fishing industry. Richard lived and worked in Newfoundland and Labrador for nearly two years. On his return, he enrolled at the Eastman Dental Institute in London, eventually staying there for 20 years. After gaining his postgraduate qualifications he worked as a lecturer, senior lecturer, then as an NHS consultant before returning to a senior lecturer post before Edinburgh came calling.

Following the closure of the Edinburgh Dental School in the early 1990s it was decided to open a postgraduate institute. Prof Ibbetson was brought on board to develop that in September 1999, a challenge he relished from the very start. He said: “As a team we built up the Institute from pretty much nothing. It was a postgraduate specialist clinical care facility with a very small number of ’grad’ students. In the last 12 years we have produced four new masters degree programmes in dental specialties as well as producing the first honours BSc degree for dental hygienists and therapists; they now do a degree in oral health sciences. And that is the only honours degree of its type in the UK.”

The Institute is a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh, NHS Lothian and NHS Education for Scotland but Prof Ibbetson insists it has worked out well over the last decade or so. “If I was asked then the most satisfying thing in my career has been the development of the Institute over the years,” he continued.

“It has made a significant difference to Scottish dentistry and the quality of what my colleagues and I have provided educationally has been very good, not to mention some excellent patient care.”

And, despite his change of focus early on in his dental career, he explained that he has thoroughly enjoyed his life in dentistry. He said: “It’s been a fantastic career I have to say. It’s still the one where I get up in the morning and look forward to coming to work, which is perhaps strange when you have been doing it this long.”

He also revealed that he still gets a kick out of treating people despite his other commitments: “I still do a lot of dentistry, partly on the basis that, for my specialty (fixed prosthodontics) you can’t teach it if you stop doing it. If you stopped you would have about a year before you were out of date. So I still do a lot of it and I still enjoy it.”

And he also gets a lot out of seeing his students learn and develop as dental professionals, both at the Institute and after they have left. He said: “To see people gain knowledge and abilities in a specialist arena is very satisfying. There are no two ways about it, it is something that I get a tremendous buzz from.

“Many of these postgraduates have remained friends for life: I’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years, and one knows people around the world who have gone on to do very significant things in dentistry and dental education, so that is very satisfying indeed.”

As for his new role, Prof Ibbetson said that, rather than being a specific aim of his, becoming dean of the Dental Faculty was more of a natural process: “It was an evolution I think. The role of the dean is essentially to continue to develop the faculty, and being a three-year term, it is a relatively short time.

“You have a little bit of time to find your feet, probably a year to do anything that you believe is particularly important, and then you are handing over to the next person. Usually what happens is the dean subsequent to you is the one that ends up completing the work that you started. That, traditionally, is the way it has worked.”

But he explained that the evolutionary process that led him to the position isn’t going to turn into a revolution once he takes up post in September. He said: “I follow a long line of excellent deans so if you asked if I am going to cut a swathe through what has been done before, the answer would have to be no, because what has been done before has been very good.”

Prof Ibbetson revealed that his predecessor, the current dean David Felix, has been working hard with the other faculties in setting up tri-collegiate speciality membership exams between Edinburgh, Glasgow and England in an effort to standardise the qualifications across the UK. It will probably be left to him to carry that forward and see them come to fruition.

“I think David Felix has done a great job in steering a progressive course with those while also still making sure that Edinburgh is very significantly an equal partner. I think that is very important,” he said.

However, he highlights one area he thinks the Edinburgh Dental Faculty and the dental faculties of the other colleges, could play a more significant role. He said: “I think the dental faculties of the colleges must play an important political role in UK dentistry. I think it’s important that they do so, because in that arena they do speak very much on behalf of the specialists and of standards in dentistry.

“I would like to see the faculty here also play a slightly stronger role in the politics of UK dentistry. Scotland is clearly a separate country so it is slightly different, but I do think that we have something to contribute to debate and to policy formation.”

Fast-forwarding to the end of his tenure, how would Prof Ibbetson like to be remembered as dean of the Dental Faculty? He said: “I would like to be remembered as somebody who listened, as somebody who gave people the opportunity to develop ideas properly – supporting people in what they do. And as somebody who further developed the role of the dental faculty within Scottish and UK dentistry going forward.

“Edinburgh has a very strong reputation overseas and worldwide, and that is a very precious thing. That requires it not only to be sustained, but also developed. Fortunately, I will have a group of people around me with a lot of expertise, so that should make life a little bit easier.”


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