How well-prepared are newly qualified oral health professionals to practice in Australia?

A research team led by Professor Rodrigo Mariño from the Melbourne Dental School (MDS), recently completed a project which explored how well prepared newly-qualified dentists, oral health therapists, dental therapists, dental hygienists, and dental prosthetists are to practice.

The MDS research team, in collaboration with the Department of Medical Education, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences and the University of Melbourne, undertook the study, which was commissioned and funded by the Australian Dental Council (ADC) following a competitive tender process.

Work on the project commenced in September 2019. The study, which is the first of its kind in Australian oral health research, produced two main outcomes. The first outcome was theoretical, derived from a thorough literature review and stakeholders’ consultation, and allowed for an expansion of the theoretical framework used to understand and conceptualise preparedness for practice in dentistry. This review outlined key additional dimensions to better understand the competencies expected of oral health professionals in the 21st century.

The second outcome was the Australia-wide assessment of preparedness for practice, an assessment based on the self-perceptions and experiences of final-year students and new graduates, as well as the perspectives of clinical demonstrators, dental course coordinators, senior members of the professions and employers. The opinions of consumers were also sought.

Findings from this component indicated that dental students, at the time of graduation, were receiving adequate theoretical and evidence-based information, as well as satisfactory clinical skills in their formal learning and teaching activities, which prepared them well to begin safe practice as newly graduated oral health practitioners.

Professor Mariño pointed out that newly-graduated oral health professionals were assessed as being particularly well prepared in the areas of communication skills and social and community orientation. They were also assessed as having an awareness of their scope of practice and initial limitations to practice, professional attitudes needed, the importance of continuing professional development (CDP), and ethical judgements. These findings are encouraging, however, it remains important to continuously improve and adapt dental curricula to meet contemporary challenges.

“Oral health professionals play an important role in addressing patients’ overall health and well-being and need the skills and experience to best support a multicultural patient base. They also need to be prepared to support patients with some particular challenges”.

The MDS study also identified areas in which new graduates may benefit from further training and consolidation, as well as areas where more experience might be required. Newly-graduated oral health professionals, whilst well trained in general dentistry, may need additional clinical experience and training to prepare them for managing emergencies, both medical and dental, such as dental trauma, as well as challenging communication scenarios, like ones where patients are experiencing domestic abuse or neglect and patients living with disability.

Nevertheless, consistent with the literature, it was generally acknowledged that consolidating competencies in clinical practice is a lifelong learning process which can only be achieved through practical experience. Given that new graduates possess the basic level of preparedness for practice, it is reasonable to expect that their subsequent experience in general practice will allow for a rapid consolidation of professional skills.

“This was an Australian-wide study.  Results indicate a consensus that training programs are producing graduates who have the required knowledge for safe dental practice. This appeared to be consistent, regardless of which institution graduates came from.”

As the accreditation authority for the Australian dental professions, the ADC is responsible for the accreditation of dental education and training programs which precede registration. As the authority responsible for ensuring oral health programs provide students with the required professional competencies needed to register with the Dental Board of Australia, the ADC has a strong interest in the preparedness of graduates for practice upon graduation.

Dental schools and training institutions also share a fundamental concern with how well prepared their graduates are upon entry into the profession.

Professor Mariño noted that the project supplies Australian data that can inform future review and development of accreditation standards, policies, and professional competencies for new practitioners.

Professor Mariño also paid tribute to the research team (Prof. David Manton, Prof. Julie Satur, Dr. Rebecca Wong, Dr. Felicity Crombie, Mr. Geoff Adams, Ms. Clare McNally, Dr. Antonio Celentano, Prof. Mike Morgan, Dr. Mathew Lim, and Mr. Diego Lopez) as well as others who participated in the study. Additionally, he recognised the contribution of colleagues in the Department of Medical Education (Prof. Clare Delany and Dr. Kate Reid) and the University of Melbourne to the success of the project.