Think different about life in the country

09 December, 2019 / editorial
 Will Peakin  

You don’t have to work in a city to flourish as a dentist – and your quality of life could be significantly better

Laura Kerr swore she was leaving, never to return. “I was going a long way away and would not be coming back,” she recalled, laughing. Looking out from her hometown, Laura eschewed Glasgow and Dundee dental schools (her siblings were at university in both cities), in favour of Cardiff. “I had a brilliant time. If someone had said I would eventually be back working in Dumfries and Galloway, in Dalbeattie, I would have thought it was a ludicrous idea.”

However, on graduating, a decision had to be made. Her boyfriend – now husband – was from Cornwall; would they move there, or Scotland? At the time, there were many significant financial incentives available for graduate dentists to move to rural areas in Scotland. Laura did her year’s vocational training in Dumfries and then general professional training in Glasgow. “And that’s when the penny dropped,” she said. “I wanted to be in a rural setting; the pace of life is so much better.”

Again, a financial incentive – available in 2007, and committing Laura to a rural practice for three years – was a factor. Returning to the practice in Dumfries where she completed her vocational training, Laura also undertook a post-graduate diploma in sedation at Newcastle University. “I had developed an interest in working with anxious and phobic patients,” she said, “and worked part-time as a senior dental officer with the health board, treating those who had been referred.”

In 2010, aged 28, Laura decided to open her own practice, Birch Valley Dental Clinic, in Dalbeattie. “It was a huge step, so early in my career,” she reflected. “But the town I grew up in, there was no dental practice – for a population of 4,000. This meant that people either had to drive a significant distance to access NHS dentistry, or they just didn’t bother – and their teeth became grossly neglected.”

She became a vocational trainer and was able to take on a trainee and then a qualified dentist. Approaching the two-year mark, the practice had registered 3,000 patients, triggering the first tranche of a grant which helped to pay off a loan taken out for the launch. It was also the year her daughter was born, presenting the additional challenge of finding maternity cover.

But, looking back, the decision to return to her hometown is one that she does not regret.

“There is such a diverse range of patients seeking a wide variety of treatment, which is great,” said Laura. “We also have a very close-knit dental community and there are a lot of events to support colleagues with audits, quality improvement projects and so on. The work-life balance is very good, with easy access to outdoor activities. We have really good local authority schools and housing is very affordable, especially if you are moving from the central belt of Scotland or the south of England.”

Nestled in the south west of Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway has a lot to offer in terms of career progression, work-life balance, and social activities. The area is famous for outdoor pursuits, a vibrant food and drink culture, as well as unique arts and entertainment offerings. With the average price of a detached home over 40 per cent less than Glasgow, and approximately 65 per cent less than Edinburgh, the housing market is great value for money. There are high-quality, new-build developments, classic family homes, and well-preserved historic buildings providing a variety of options for families and individuals.

As for education, there are nearly 100 primary schools serving age ranges 3 to 12 years old, with 17 secondary schools and a wide range of additional learning opportunities throughout the region, including the newly established Bridge Educational Trust. The region is also home to Dumfries & Galloway College with sites in Dumfries and Stranraer; as well as campuses for University of Glasgow, University of the West of Scotland (UWS) and Scotland’s Rural University College (SRUC).

Ciara Baxter graduated from Dundee nine years ago and undertook longitudinal foundation training in Glasgow, followed by work in practice, hospital, and community settings. “I really hadn’t thought about coming home [to Annan],” said Ciara, “but my now business partner – we grew up next door to each other – was struggling to recruit a dentist and he persuaded me to come back part-time, and I stayed! It’s great to feel part of a community and it’s a privilege to serve it too. They are great in return; everyone tries to support each other. When I was pregnant with my son, my patients were more concerned that I was ok than whether I would be available to see them.

“The practice I now run has been established for 50 years, so it has a very loyal patient base. A few can even recall the days of lead aprons and gas and air! But I think people have this perception that you can’t have a good job unless you work in Glasgow or Edinburgh. It’s not true; you can have a really successful career here because the range and quality of dentistry is as wide and high as anywhere. The health board is really supportive also, and there are a lot of CPD events to keep ourselves up to date.

“We’re an hour from the Lake District, we have the local hills, and sport is a big part of the community. I play for the local rugby team and it’s great to get together with the girls – a lot of us are mums as well – for training during the week. As much as its beneficial to have the support of your colleagues in dentistry, it’s also good to belong to something other than dentistry. It’s a great lifestyle for our son as well; there are lots of clubs for him to be involved in. It does offer a less stressful pace of life. But, we’re not cut off either; there’s easy access to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Carlisle, Newcastle and Manchester [where Ciara’s husband works].”

Kenny Barr has been practising in Stranraer for 26 years. After graduating from Glasgow in 1989, he worked at practices in Lanarkshire but his sister-in-law, who had married a farmer there, sent him copies of the local paper which regularly bemoaned the lack of access to NHS dentistry for people in the area. “I set up a cold squat and in the first two days, we had 1,500 patients registered. And I liked it so much, I stayed,” said Kenny. “I would struggle to find a better place to raise a family,” he added. “It’s safe, you have a wide choice of schools at both primary and secondary level, and there’s so much to do here. Professionally, there is scope to develop a range of skills because we aim to treat our patients holistically rather than automatically refer them to a centre that might involve a round trip of 150 miles. Our VTs have a much more rounded training and our associates develop new skills.”

Access to NHS Dental Services in Dumfries and Galloway has significantly improved in recent years, with 88 per cent of the population now registered with an NHS dentist and several practices across the region are accepting new NHS patients. Another experience that Laura, Ciara, and Kenny have in common is the challenge of recruiting and retaining dental team members. It is a challenge that NHS Dumfries & Galloway is devoting considerable time and effort to meet, including publication of a recruitment and retention action plan.

“There are a number of opportunities at practices in the area and we are working hard to support those teams to find the best people,” said Valerie White, Interim Director of Dentistry. “We’re working closely with NHS Education Scotland to attract trainees and have seen some very positive results of that effort this year. The board is also very keen to make sure that dental professionals coming to the area are welcomed, that they feel engaged and are supported in their work and professional development.”

There are also financial incentives available; dentists who complete vocational training or general professional training and meet certain conditions can claim £10,000 over two years and dentists from EEA countries can claim £5,000. Several practices in the area are also eligible for the Remote Areas Allowance; an annual payment of £9,000, subject to various conditions. Valerie added: “We pride ourselves on being an inclusive, welcoming and friendly region – and that goes for our health board as well. NHS Dumfries & Galloway provides a wide range of services from over 50 bases across the region. We are looking for people who share our values; people who want to be part of a community and team players who want to make an impact every day.

“We have people at our core and see ourselves as one team, with everyone playing their part to ensure the success of our services. We know that our region has a lot to offer, and we want to share that with others. We might be small in terms of population – with approximately 150,000 people spread out across nearly 2,500 square miles – but we are big in terms of ambition. We want everyone else to know what we know; that Dumfries and Galloway is an incredible place to work, live and play.”

“We want everyone else to know what we know: that Dumfries and Galloway is an incredible place to work, live and play.”

Valerie White

Tags: country / Life / quality of life / rural dentistry

Categories: Magazine

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