Innovative course with the clinical team at its heart

Plymouth University Peninsula School of Dentistry has, over the past ten years, helped to revolutionise the way in which the dental professionals of the future are trained.

The first to place dental education in the primary care setting and a pioneer in linking dental training to meet local health and community needs, when the school announced that it was to launch a course in dental therapy and hygiene it came as no surprise that it too would break new ground.

The first cohort of dental therapy and hygiene students began their studies at Plymouth in September 2014 and they are set to graduate in July 2017.

Miss Clare McIlwaine, course lead, commented: 

“The course has been designed to encourage inter-professional learning and effective team work from the very start of the programme. We believe that ours is the first dental therapy and hygiene course to do this and it is an innovative approach to dental education.” 

At Plymouth University, the BSc (Hons) Dental Therapy and Hygiene and Bachelor of Dental Surgery courses are fully-integrated in the first year of the programme. They overlap in their scope of clinical practice and are underpinned by biomedical sciences. 

“As they share learning outcomes, teaching sessions and assessments, our first year cohorts begin simulating the way in which dentists and dental hygienists and therapists interact in clinical practice,” said Clare. 

Clinical practice is where dental education at Plymouth University is truly innovative. Investment has been made in four Dental Education Facilities (DEFs) across the South West – one in Truro, two in Plymouth and a fourth in Exeter (which is currently in the process of moving to a new home in the city). The DEFs are run on behalf of Plymouth University by the Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise.

At the DEFs, dental students treat NHS patients under the supervision of qualified dental professionals. Since the first DEF opened in 2008 more than 18,000 people in Devon and Cornwall have enjoyed access to NHS dental care where before they may not have done.

As well as addressing local dental care and awareness needs, students are placed in the DEFs to treat patients in a real clinical environment from six months in to their studies. For the first six months students hone their clinical skills in a state-of-the-art dental simulation suite, which they continue to use throughout their studies for additional learning.

Another innovation which is key to the success of the dental and dental therapy and hygiene courses is the very real commitment to the community. In exercises run by the Community Engagement Team at the Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise, dental students at Plymouth University interact with a wide variety of groups in the community – from young mothers to the elderly, the homeless to people with stroke, and others.

In their second year dental therapy and hygiene students join their dentistry colleagues in Inter Professional Engagement (IPE) projects. These involve groups of students being allocated to specific groups in the community and are tasked with addressing a particular dental health need.

This year was the first year that dental therapy and hygiene therapy students took part in the IPE programme and their input was a huge success.

As an example, one group worked with the Salvation Army and its service users at Devonport Lifehouse homeless centre in Plymouth, to create a passport to health that can be used by residents to access services and help maintain control over their health. The result was a useful fold-out ‘passport’ that people can keep on them at all times. They are able to record their personal details, the conditions that affect them and their medication, the name of their GP, dentist and other carers, so that this information can be used by health professionals when required.

The passport also includes contact information and a map for medical, dental, mental health, benefits and finance, housing, nutrition, drug and alcohol support and other general support services.

Lyndsey Withers is a volunteer at Devonport Lifehouse. She said: 

“I can really see this making a difference to the lives of our residents and others in Plymouth facing similar challenges.”

Dental therapy and hygiene and dental students continue to share learning including life science sessions, plenaries and workshops but start to develop their own sense of professional identify as the course begins to focus on the precise skills of the dental therapy and hygiene profession.

In year three students have their own dedicated teaching sessions and come together with the dental students for clinical activities and team working. 

Both the final years work together and sit their final exams together. They will have a joint graduation ceremony, sharing the highs and lows of both courses. The curriculum team believe that this sets them up for team working and networking with other members of the team as these links have already been established at an early stage.

The curriculum team’s vision which includes Dr Louise Belfield, IDS module lead and Professor Gill Jones, Director of Undergraduate Studies who have both played a huge part in the design and development of the course is one of learning together, problem solving together working together towards the same goal and end result, producing high quality patient care and excellence within the team This vision starts from day one and continues all the way through the course with an emphasis on how a dental team would run out in general practice.

One student once quoted: 

“We all (BDS Dental Surgery and BSc (Hons) Dental Therapy and Hygiene students) felt overwhelmed at the start of the course but we all soon realised that we were in it together.” 

Victoria Beer is in her final year as a BSc (Hons) Dental Therapy and Hygiene student at Plymouth University. Here, she shares her thoughts and experiences as a pioneer on this innovative course.

What do you think have been the benefits of integrating your course with the Bachelor of Dental Surgery course in the first year?

By being fully integrated with the dental students it was almost as if we could prove to them and to ourselves what we’re capable of! It really breaks down the idea of a hierarchy in that we all have the same foundation from day one. It reinforces that we are all part of the same dental team right from the start of our careers.

Do you think working alongside dental students in practice is a worthwhile approach?

It is definitely worthwhile as I feel by working closely with the dental students it prepares us as fully as possible for the way in which modern dental practice is moving – where the different roles of therapists/hygienists and dentists complement each other and work efficiently alongside one another.

How have the first two years of your course been? What have been the most valuable aspect and how well do you think it is preparing you for your future career?

The first two years have been intense and have flown by so quickly. I have definitely pushed myself out of my comfort zone. For example, public speaking during presentations is something I never thought I could do, but the feeling you get once you’ve accomplished a new experience is definitely a high point. There have been days when I’ve thought “I’m never going to be able to understand this”, but you just keep going and all of a sudden it clicks and in turn makes sense of something else – the ‘spiral learning’ technique really works!

What has been the best aspect for you?

Even though dental nursing gave me a good background to start from, there’s just so much to learn. What stands out for me now (and it’s probably best to understand this early on) is that this is all in preparation for a career where you will never stop learning – there’s always more to know and that’s what I love about it.

What advice would you give to someone considering applying to study for the BSc (Hons) Dental Therapy and Hygiene at Plymouth University?

This is an intense yet fulfilling course and my advice would be to apply if you really want to get this qualification – sometimes when the deadlines and assessments are piling up it’s the only thing that will get you through. But don’t let that put you off – it’s a superb grounding for a career in dental therapy and hygiene. And my other piece of advice? Start revising human anatomy the second you finish reading this!