PREDICTED debt levels for dental graduates are expected to more than double from the current average of around £25,000 to as much as £63,000 once the rise in tuition fees takes hold.
The figures make for depressing reading for trainee dentists who are feeling the effects of the economic downturn as keenly as the rest of the healthcare sector.
The seemingly endless gloomy headlines warning of financial hardship are accompanied by equally worrying news of dwindling numbers of jobs, a squeeze on NHS and private practice income and universities struggling to achieve research grants.
Add to that the various other workforce and political factors and it’s fair to say young dentists now have to compete in an increasingly challenging environment. So what can trainees do to keep ahead of the game?
One of the biggest issues that will affect the majority of dental students is debt. From this year, new undergraduates south of the border will have to pay up to £9,000 tuition fees per annum.
The British Dental Association has raised concerns that this could limit access to the profession after figures showed people from lower socio-economic backgrounds made up just one in every six applications for dentistry and medicine last year. At present, dental students are graduating with an average debt of £25,545 compared to £16,614 for other students. The current level is already up 128 per cent from 2000 and, given the rise in tuition fees, debts could hit £63,000. Such daunting figures could potentially make entry to the profession a matter of ability to pay rather than ability to perform.
The best thing young dentists can do is to plan your budget early and make sure you stick to it. Work out how much money you have and what your expenditure is likely to be – and be realistic. Research all available funding streams, whether it’s low interest student loans, professional bank loans or even charities and sponsorship. For those with money worries, independent advice is available from sources such as the National Debtline (www.nationaldebtline.co.uk) or Citizens Advice.
In the long-term, fears over financial problems could change the shape of the dental workforce by deterring some trainees from further postgraduate study. This could impact specialty training, especially in a field such as oral and maxillofacial surgery which requires two undergraduate degrees. It may also reduce the number of young dentists who go on to buy their own practice, perhaps opening the door to an increase in the number of corporate practices. These factors will present their own challenges in time, so it is worthwhile for young dentists to bear in mind that career plans may have to adapt to continually evolving professional settings.
Another major challenge for trainees is job competition. In the not too distant past, a job in the UK on completion of BDS was almost a certainty. Now with an increase in EU applicants for VT/DFT places, competition for these posts is much higher and undergraduates must be prepared to go that extra mile to make an impression. There are a number of clinical and non-clinical activities to participate in which will not only make your CV stand out to potential employers, but will also improve communication skills which are so important at interview.
To stay ahead of the game upon graduation, it is vital to continue relevant postgraduate study and courses. There are a multitude of clinical courses and CPD activities offered by a number of providers. It is important to expand your clinical repertoire with treatments which will not only benefit your patient base, but will offer a return on your investment. In these tight economic times, young dentists must be acutely aware that it is easy to invest vast sums of money in education and equipment which may turn out to be of little practical use.
Given the number of factors which will impact on our future working lives, I would urge young dentists to feedback problems they encounter, and also participate in influencing regulation and policy issues which will have a direct impact on their working life. The BDA has two committees held especially for the representation of students and young dentists. The Young Dentists Committee (YDC) represents practitioners up to 12 years post-graduation from all spheres of dentistry in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. YDC regional representatives are contactable through the BDA website, or if a region does not have a representative, concerns can be raised through the BDA centrally.
The BDA Student Committee comprises two students from each UK dental school who champion the needs and wants of students both in terms of policy-making and political lobbying. The Student Committee has been active in looking at issues such as student funding, the vocational training/foundation training application process, and student debt.
Although there is some uncertainty about future aspects of the profession, it is not all doom and gloom. A dental career still has excellent employment prospects and starting salary, especially in comparison to graduates from other degrees. A dentist can still choose between working in private or public practice, and can switch between the two with relative ease. Working hours are fairly flexible, and there are many non-clinical dental activities which can offer a great deal of job satisfaction. There is much to be proud of in our profession, and it is imperative to resist attempts to devalue our clinical services and the dentist’s position within the team.
Martin Nimmo is a dentist at the Harley Street Dental Group, London and editor of SoundBite. He is also chair of the BDA’s Young Dentists Committee and Student Committee