Dental students celebrate community impact with national smile month showcase

From primary school pupils to Age UK carers, the homeless to family nurses, and cancer patients to sportsmen and women – the community brush strokes have been broad for second year students at Plymouth University’s Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry.

More than 60 students took part in this year’s Inter-Professional Engagement (IPE) programme, which enables undergraduates to work and engage with different groups in a range of community settings. Orchestrated by the Community Engagement team, within the Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise, the IPEs not only provide students with experiential learning opportunities, but contribute to oral health awareness and improving access to dental care – especially for the most vulnerable groups in society.

So it was smiles all round in May, when PUPSMD held a symposium at the John Bull Building on the Derriford campus to celebrate, and reflect upon, the eight projects undertaken by this year’s cohort. Each project was presented to an expert panel including Stephen Hancocks OBE, Editor of the British Dental Journal.

Dr Robert Witton, Lead for Community-based Dentistry at the PDSE, said: “Community projects are integral to our dental curriculum for Year 1 and 2 undergraduates, and the IPEs really challenge them in a meaningful way to develop their inter-personal, communication and listening skills, and their ability to work as a team.

“The IPEs also enable them to work with other health professionals and in settings outside of the dental facilities, and every year our students are simply wonderful ambassadors for the University.”

During the course of each IPE, teams of nine students work under academic supervision with one of the community organisations. This might take the form of running educational sessions with schoolchildren; holding tooth-brushing or varnishing clubs; or addressing psychological issues, particularly with the homeless who might perceive barriers to obtaining dental treatment. Students have also overseen a number of triage sessions, in which more than 90 vulnerable patients have been recruited, and by hosting sessions at the Dental Education Facilities, they've helped to challenge perceptions of dental care.

“It was great – it was something really different,” said student Hassan Adnan, reflecting on the experience of working with schoolchildren at Ford Park Primary School. “We didn't turn up and give a PowerPoint presentation – we actually did some acting, which I've never done before.” 

Stephen Hancocks led the judging panel for the symposium for a second year, along with Bridget Ashton, a general dental practitioner; Kevin Elliston from Public Health England; and Rob Nelder, consultant in public health at Plymouth City Council.

Paying tribute to the impact of the IPEs, Stephen said: “The community projects carried out by dental students at Plymouth University leave me with huge inspiration and optimism for the future of the profession. The students’ energy, commitment, excitement and skills bode well for the dentistry of tomorrow.”

The IPEs are just one of the reasons why the Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise has been picking up national accolades, with both a Green Gown Award for Enterprise, and a Guardian University Award for Community Impact under its belt over the last nine months.

Professor Christopher Tredwin, Head of the Peninsula Dental School, said: “Launching a social enterprise has helped take our community engagement – and impact – to a new level. It’s provided the governance to run our Dental Education Facilities in Devon and Cornwall, and concentrated our ability to provide experiential learning opportunities for our undergraduates. As a consequence, our students are graduating with a truly rounded set of skills that will serve them well in their professional careers.”

Those IPE projects in brief:

  • Sure Start in Plymouth at the LARK Children’s Centre, focusing on pregnancy, breastfeeding and weaning, with an emphasis on reducing intake of sugary food and drinks, and salt. The project resulted in advice and support for parents-to-be and new parents, with cookery demonstrations and a recipe leaflet.
  • Ford Park Primary School, where students created a number of fun activities to help pupils understand more about their own oral health, including games, a catchy brushing song to learn, as well as dressing up as a dentist and learning more about teeth using models and puppets.

  • The Salvation Army’s Devonport Lifehouse, helping residents to become more aware of how to maintain good oral health and access dental treatment, including setting out stations in the Lifehouse to look at tooth brushing, cleaning between teeth, denture care, diet, and smoking and alcohol – and the effect they have on teeth.
  • The Family Nurse Partnership Programme at Plymouth Community Healthcare, where students provided the nurses with training and an information pack on the care of milk teeth, which they could then use with the young families under their care.
  • Age UK, sharing with carers advice on brushing techniques, flossing, diet, denture care and how to spot common dental diseases, to improve their own care for the elderly.
  • Sports students at the University of St. Mark & St. John, raising awareness of the hidden dangers to teeth of sugary energy drinks and snacks, and producing a web-based resource of advice and suggestions which could be used by all sports people.
  • Plymouth Stop Smoking Service, where students not only raised oral health awareness and access to dental care, but also designed information leaflets for the service, and shot a video of a patient who managed to quit smoking. 
  • Peninsula Head and Neck Cancer Support, which is a Facebook-based support page, created by PUPSMD students, for patients to share their experiences; they also helped develop a referral system for Derriford patients to be fast-tracked to the neighbouring PUPSMD dental facility.

Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise (PDSE)

PDSE is a Community Interest Company (CIC) committed to improving oral health across the South West. They: run Dental Education Facilities in Plymouth, Truro and Exeter, where students from Plymouth University treat NHS patients; improve awareness of oral health in the wider community, focusing on groups such as schoolchildren, the elderly, parents, those with specific conditions, people with special needs substance abusers, the homeless, prisoners and; ensure access to dental care for all, but especially to those groups who may feel excluded from mainstream dentistry.