Opportunities in dental therapy - BSc Dental Therapy Programme Director and Senior Lecturer
Joanne Bowles, BSc Dental Therapy Programme Director and Senior Lecturer at the University of Liverpool, discusses her experiences and advice on the opportunities that can come with studying a degree in Dental Hygiene and Therapy.
Why and how did you become a dental therapist?
I was given the opportunity to attend a family friend’s dental practice for a morning while I was undertaking my GCSEs at school. There was no going back, I was inspired with what I saw and felt this was the profession for me. I continued to visit the dental practice every holiday and even got a Saturday job as a receptionist while still at school. I shadowed dentists and dental hygienists and decided that I wanted to be able to help people, make a difference and have a range of clinical skills. This led me to apply for the combined Dental Hygiene and Dental Therapy programme, whilst commencing working as a dental nurse following the completion of my a-levels.
How did you get to work in a dental school and what have been your biggest achievements in your current job?
Following the completion of my Dental Hygiene and Dental Therapy diplomas, I worked in a range of dental settings utilising my full scope of practice and taking on additional duties. The opportunity then came to transition to a role as a clinical supervisor for 1.5 days a week at the University of Liverpool, this then expanded to a fulltime role. Later I assumed my current position as the BSc Dental Therapy Programme Director and a Senior Lecturer in Dental Therapy at the University of Liverpool.
One of my biggest achievements was becoming the BSc Dental Therapy Programme Director, a role previously only undertaken by a dentist. This role has allowed me to make significant contributions to successfully developing and delivering Liverpool’s newly integrated curriculum. This curriculum combined teaching for both Dentistry and Dental Therapy students for the whole three years of the BSc Dental Therapy and the first three years of the BDS Dental Surgery. My work with the school helped prepare for a rigorous and extremely successful inspection by the dental regulator, the General Dental Council (GDC). Following a period of time as programme director I was successful at gaining promotion to Senior Lecturer. With school and individual nominations for University staff awards, and for all the work around interprofessional education, in 2022 I was awarded the ADEE Oral B Excellence in Dental Education Intra/Interprofessional Education Award,
What does a dental therapist do, and how do they impact oral healthcare? How has the role of a dental therapist changed in recent years?
Dental therapists, as valuable members of the dental team, have a huge impact on oral health by engaging patients, securing trust and making a difference to their quality of life. The role extends beyond education, prevention and treatments and requires strong communication skills. Recognition and regulation of dental therapists has evolved over time. In 2002, dental therapists’ scope expanded, including allowing dental therapists extend their skills and undertake treatments such impressions, placement of stainless steel crowns on primary teeth. Therapists were also then able to work in general practice - rather than only in hospital or community settings. The new scope allowed dental hygienists and dental therapists to own their own dental practices and employ dentists. The introduction of direct patient access in 2013 has enabled patients to see a dental hygienist or dental therapist without the initial examination of a dentist. More recently, there have been changes within the NHS to allow the further utilisation of dental therapists within the dental team.
There have been challenges in spreading awareness of the increased responsibilities a dental therapist may take on. Our Liverpool dental therapy students now learn side by side with our dentistry students for the whole of their three-year course (dentistry students do five years). A small number of BSc students are able to apply to the graduate entry programme to continue on the BDS pathway for years four and five of the BDS programme. By learning together during their degrees, we hope our graduates are in good stead to promote ‘whole team working’ where everyone is working according to the roles they are trained all to enhance patient care.
The integration is not limited to the student cohorts, at staff level too, dental therapists and dentists work collaboratively in senior leadership roles as well as in collaboration with planning and delivery of teaching and clinical activities. On the student clinics, the students are supervised by both dentists and dental therapists, depending on the clinical activity and scope of practice. Seeing staff from all dentistry roles work together to support the students and the patients means students appreciate first-hand the teamwork required for patient care.
What qualities makes someone a good dental therapist?
Universities are looking for candidates who not only have the grades but also the attributes that fit the role. We look for strong interpersonal skills, effective communication, empathy, the ability to work collaboratively, and a willingness to seek guidance. Manual dexterity is an important skill to develop - hobbies help practice the fine motor skills needed. Applicants should showcase a genuine passion for dental therapy, supported by relevant (but not necessarily clinical) work experience.
Dental schools are keen to reach out to students from all backgrounds to consider a career in oral healthcare. At University of Liverpool, for example, we have initiatives such as the 'Merseyside Young Health and Life Scientists' programme. This engages students from targeted schools, offering immersive healthcare experiences across multiple education stages. We also run other schemes like a 'Destination Dentistry' summer school for Year 12 students, which has expanded with Dental Schools Council support. For students that have been out of education for a period of time or that don’t come from a traditional a-level background the University also offers a year zero foundation programme in collaboration with a local college.
What can I do with a degree in Dental Therapy?
There are various opportunities for next steps for Dental Therapy or Dental Hygiene and Therapy graduates. There is now the opportunity to undertake Dental Therapy Foundation Training following completion of an undergraduate programme – aiding with the transition into the real world environment. There are many different fields of dentistry that dental therapists can work in, depending on the interests of the individuals. Some may pursue a pathway focusing on restorative dentistry, some periodontology, some paediatrics and others utilise their full scope of practice. There are academic career roles as well as more and more research opportunities and NIHR fellowships.
What options are there to work as a dental therapist in academia and what is your experience of it?
Working in academia means impacting the future workforce by training students. I guide students towards independent clinical practice and help them develop the skills and attributes essential to their role, including effective communication and working collaboratively in teams.
Clinical practice and academia are rewarding and challenging in their own ways. The main difference between working as a dental therapist in academia versus clinical practice is that there is less direct patient contact in academia. Dental therapists in clinical practice often have a varied week, working in different practices and seeing different groups of patients. Dental therapists in academia spend more time teaching students, taking on leadership roles within the school and faculty, and providing student support. However, dental therapists in academia maintain their skills with clinical sessions each week and supervising the students on clinics where they are treating real patients.
As a dental therapist with over twenty years’ experience, I can definitely say which ever role you are working in, whether this be a clinical role or an academic role, you can really make a difference. You can develop patients’ confidence and improve their oral health, and/or you can develop the future dental professionals.