More dental therapists needed to clear patient backlog, says professor

20 April, 2022 / infocus
 Will Peakin  

A leading dental professor is encouraging decision makers to consider employing more dental therapists in a bid to help tackle the significant backlog of patients waiting for appointments. 

Professor Phil Taylor, Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, believes that employing greater numbers of dental therapists, who require a shorter training period than dentists, would provide some much-needed support to the dental sector. 

His view was first highlighted by Scottish Dental magazine in April 2021.

Professor Taylor, who will be attending the upcoming British Dental Conference and Dentistry Show next month, made his most recent call after it was revealed that those waiting for a dentist appointment has reached 40 million in the UK1.

Professor Taylor said: “Following Brexit, lots of Europeans who were previously living and working in the UK have left and moved to other parts of Europe.  This has severely impacted the dental profession in the UK – for example, 37 per cent of dentists in Dumfries and Galloway have moved out of the country since the UK left the EU.

“Scotland in particular is struggling with a real shortage of dentists, and I believe that we must be more forward thinking when it comes to clearing the current backlog of patients. One way of doing this would be to move towards employing not just dentists, but more dental therapists, who are able to carry out a large number of procedures usually carried out by dentists, such as check-ups, hygiene appointments and fillings.

“A dental therapist is a vital part of the team and is perfectly capable of doing the work that most patients require,” Professor Taylor continued. “A dentist could be in charge of four or five dental therapists. They would carry out the treatment plan, then the dental therapists would conduct the actual treatment. Some dental therapists can also do orthodontics and specialise in dentures, so they really can cover a lot of areas of treatment. 

“My question is, should we focus on training more dentists or should we be actively encouraging more people into becoming dental therapists? Dentistry is a very lengthy and costly degree course, and many dental students have experienced delays to their degree courses and training as a result of COVID, so it’s going to take a long time before the workforce gets up to full capacity again. 

“Of course, dentists remain absolutely vital, but I think a fresh approach is required in order to educate people who are looking to get into this industry about the different career opportunities that are available, such as dental therapy.  There isn’t just one path to becoming a dental professional.

“A dental therapist could begin their career as a dental nurse and while they must have the relevant A levels, it’s not quite the same process going to university to study dentistry as a degree.  They can qualify with the relevant training, ongoing professional development and examinations, which makes it a more attainable prospect for some.”

Professor Taylor added that efforts should also be made to attract dentists from other parts of the world to come and work in the UK.

“If someone is from any country other than the UK and wants to practice dentistry here, they have to undertake an overseas registration by the GMC, and there is currently such a backlog as a result of COVID-19 that very few exams have been carried out recently,” he said. “There is a potential to bring back the LDS – an exam which used to be offered by all the surgical royal colleges but in a very different format to the past.”

A host of the major players within the dental industry, including Professor Taylor, are set to be present at this year’s British Dental Conference and Dentistry Show, being held on 13-14 May in Birmingham.

The two-day event is the UK’s leading exhibition and conference for dental professionals, providing clinical, leadership and practical training via an extensive educational programme and hands-on workshops. It is the UK’s largest event of its kind, attracting over 9,000 unique delegates and over 400 exhibitors.

Details for the event can be found here.  To find out more about the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, go to www.rcsed.ac.uk.

1https://bda.org/news-centre/press-releases/Pages/A-years-worth-of-dentistry-lost-but-no-urgency-from-government.aspx

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