Becoming a dental therapist with UHI
University of the Highlands and Islands students benefit from substantial face-to-face tuition in practical skills
Choice. It presents to us throughout life. Unsurprisingly, this is also reflected in education. For prospective students, hoping to study Oral Health Sciences (OHS), there are four dental institutions within Scotland to choose from – allowing pupils to enter the world of dentistry and, upon graduation, register with the General Dental Council to claim the title of a Dental Therapist.
One of these schools is the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). Being a teaching fellow for the establishment means I am biased. However, the UHI OHS structure results in both clinical care and theoretical knowledge being rigorously reinforced throughout the programme. Consequently, practitioners graduate with high self-efficacy and confidence in their future careers.
When comparatively assessing the overall student satisfaction rate in the UK, the National Student Survey of 2021 found that UHI students were 78 per cent satisfied with their studies; this is higher than the national average of 75 per cent. Dive into these results further and you can see students on the OHS course at UHI reported a 92 per cent overall satisfaction rate. So far so good, right?
Well, what about UHI as a whole? Unlike other localised universities, UHI spans the Scottish Highlands. Now, that is a vast area. This means operating becomes contemporary rather than traditional. The university consists of 12 colleges/research institutions where students can enrol on to undergraduate/postgraduate courses. From these 12 colleges, there are approximately 70 learning sites where study is conducted, meaning the university unites more than 30,000 students.
You may be wondering how this affects prospective therapist students. The OHS course at UHI is delivered through three sites: Dumfries, Inverness and Stornoway. Whilst the application process is standardised through UCAS, students can express a preference of site during the interview process. Following accepting a place on the course, students enrol at either Lews Castle College in Stornoway or at Inverness College.
The OHS course has an intake of 14 students per year. Whilst there are entry requirements which include four Scottish Highers at grade B or above or the A-Level equivalent, exceptions are considered for those with comprehensive experience in the dental field. For students where gaining qualifications such as Highers was not possible at the conventional age, access courses are considered through the Scottish Wider Access Programme.
You may ask, why is OHS at UHI special? Here is where having numerous learning sites comes in to play. As the annual intake of students is spread out across three sites, it means students benefit from substantial face-to-face tuition in practical skills sessions. Consequently, our students are left fully informed and confident in the care they deliver. In addition to tutor-driven support, UHI has virtual and physical services which ensure students are safe and given assistance if required.
The OHS course is delivered via a flipped-classroom approach; in essence this means students get to direct their own theoretical learning while being monitored and guided by tutors. This promotes independence, research and analytical skills; key components to being an autonomous clinician. Patient interaction on the course begins early on, with first year students seeing patients by the end of semester one.
This early interaction results in profound communication methodology being implemented by students during study and post-graduation.
Like any healthcare course, the OHS programme is intensive but due to the direct support students receive, this intensive nature results in motivation and progression.
Periodontal management skills are developed in the first year, with radiography/imaging, restorative and paediatric dentistry being introduced in year two. By the end of third year these skills have been refined, particularly due to final year students having the opportunity to attend general anaesthesia/radiography clinics and placement sessions in Perth.
Our programme thrives on evidence-base, and we have recently implemented the EMS GBT technology into our training, giving graduates a solid foundation prior to commencing in their career. As the world changes around us, I look forward to guiding new students in becoming the therapists of tomorrow.
Increasing role for dental therapists
While calls to employ more dental therapists – in a bid to help tackle the backlog of patients waiting for appointments – are still being considered by the Scottish Government, in England, the NHS has begun the process of reforming the dental contract.
Earlier this year, Professor Phil Taylor, Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, said that employing greater numbers of dental therapists would provide much-needed support to the profession.
Under changes announced in July, NHS dentists in England will be paid more for treating complex cases, such as people who need three fillings or more. Dental therapists will also be able to accept patients for NHS treatments, providing fillings, sealants and preventative care for adults and children, which will free up dentists’ time for urgent and complex cases.
Debbie Hemington, President of The British Association of Dental Therapists, said: “The British Association of Dental Therapists are pleased that the full skill set of DCPs has been acknowledged and welcomes these initial reforms to the NHS dental contract, and we particularly look forward to working with NHS England to clarify how skill mix and direct access in NHS practice can be utilised.”
Diane Rochford, President of the British Society of Dental Hygiene and Therapy (BSDHT), added: “I welcome the initial phase of changes to the contract for general dental services in England. The focus on access to care for patients and the implementation of the wider dental team providing care within their full scope of practice is essential to assist in reducing oral health inequalities. BSDHT look forward to the next phase of work for dental contract reform.”
Hassan Shariff is a clinical and academic teaching fellow for the University of the Highlands and Islands.