Know the drill if you want to be a dentist


WORD OF MOUTH:What the class of 2011 can expect as they take their first steps into the world of fillings, extractions and more

‘IT TAKES a doctor six years to learn everything from the top of the head to the sole of the foot and yet it takes a dentist five years to learn from the roof of the mouth to the floor of the mouth!”

This is an old medical joke which like all good medical jokes has a grain of truth. As the universities reopen and the first-year class of 2011 take their seats, it’s worth looking at what exactly they can expect and also, what you the patient can expect in 2016 when they are let loose!

In first year, dental students are thrust into a new world of learning. In my own case, it’s almost 20 years since I signed on at admissions in the Aula Maxima in University College Cork. Like most dental students, I had no clue what the course entailed. I had read through the syllabus and nodded at familiar words such as pathology and pharmacology, but had no real idea of what was involved.

The dental degree in the Republic is offered in both University College Cork and Trinity College Dublin. Medicine and dentistry typically share the first two years of undergraduate training. This encompasses a grounding not just in basic anatomy, physiology and biochemistry but also a new language. Most anatomical and medical words find their basis in Greek and Latin. A wry professor in UCC joked “Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur!” – “Anything said in Latin sounds profound!” Without the benefit of a classical education, you find yourself flipping to the glossary at the back of the book.

The volume of material and its method of testing keeps dental students on their toes. Unlike the other courses at university, the basic pass mark is 50 per cent rather than 40 per cent. The methods of testing include negative marking multiple choice questions. Simply put, for every right answer you receive one mark and for every wrong answer you receive minus one mark. It prevents guessing and leads to accuracy – both important traits in budding clinicians.

Oral examinations and presentations also feature prominently. This encourages students to demonstrate their knowledge and communication skills. It’s also incredibly nerve-wracking. Again, given the nature of the profession and the importance of clear thought, diagnosis and treatment, it’s essential.

Unlike our fellow medical students, the intensive part of training starts earlier in year three. Due to the nature of dentistry, one-to-one patient examination and operative procedure is cornerstone to producing good dentists. I can still remember being taught how to give injections and also receiving many (failed) local anaesthetics in year three, as we practised on each other.

Years four and five are fraught with lectures, practicals and patient treatments. The typical fourth and fifth-year student will treat patients from 9am-12pm and 2pm-5pm, with lectures at 8am and 5pm. Bi-location or cloning is often wished for at this senior stage. Our medical student friends might skip a ward round and not be missed (being one of 15 or 20). However, if a dental student misses a patient appointment, an angry patient and even angrier tutor will soon be asking questions.

When we think of dentists, we generally think of fillings, dentures and extractions. However, the undergraduate course provides for study of paediatric dentistry (paedodontics), orthodontics, prosthetics, restorative dentistry, oral and maxillofacial surgery, oral medicine, endodontics (root canal therapy) among others. Like all good professional degree courses, it changes to reflect new thinking, new methods and better materials.

In researching this topic, I asked many colleagues what they would change if they could travel back in time. Two suggestions kept coming up. One was a more detailed psychology module which explored patient management and also professional health/stress management. The former is crucial in helping a patient through dental treatment. The latter is essential for the health and wellbeing of not just the dentist, but also dental nurse, hygienist and auxiliaries.

The second suggestion (almost unanimous) was a module in business. While the primary degree prepares you clinically, it does not prepare you commercially. With more than 95 per cent of dental graduates ending up self-employed, it seems a serious oversight not to address this issue.

So what can patients expect from the class of 2016? Will all the training, testing and study be of benefit to the public? A survey conducted in March 2010 by the market research company, Behaviour and Attitudes, found that 74 per cent of Irish adults were extremely or very satisfied with treatment provided by their dentist. It also found that just over half (52 per cent) believed the quality of dental care had improved in the past 10 years.

And finally, lest you think that undergraduate dentistry is all toil and no fun, I would point the first-year class of 2011 towards Mark Twain who said: “Never let school interfere with your education.”