Aarhus University Seal

Debate: Providers of dental services need to be trained for a new reality

Visiting the dentist will in future involve visiting a range of specialists, each with their own function. Our degree programmes must reflect this and the universities must to adapt to society's new requirements.

By Allan Flyvbjerg, Dean of the Faculty of Health, Aarhus University

An appointment at the dentist will increasingly mean a check-up carried out by different professionals with dental treatment and hygiene as a common denominator. 

In general, Danes have healthier teeth than ever before, which will in time mean that most of us will no longer have those treatment needs that we are most familiar with at the dentist. That is, drilling and filling cavities. 

On the other hand, there will be a polarisation of tasks as described in the Danish Health and Medicines Authority's Dental Hygiene Forecast Udbud og efterspørgsel for tandplejepersonale i Danmark 2000-2020 (“Supply and Demand of Dental Care Personnel in Denmark 2000-2020”). 

Different needs today

On the one hand, there will be an increasing requirement for trained professionals who can carry out preventive check-ups and initiatives, including dental scaling and checking for any signs of caries. 

On the other hand, we will see an increasing requirement for advanced dental diagnostics and treatment for the growing number of elderly people who still have their own teeth far into old age. 

This is a social development that we are monitoring closely at the universities where we train the staff who man the dental clinics. 

Here at Aarhus University we now organise our dental programmes accordingly. 

Different patient requirements require an increasing degree of interdisciplinary competence in the dental clinic, together with close and professional teamwork between the different professional groups and knowledge of each other's professional competences.

We not only have to train the number of dentists, dental hygienists, dental surgery assistants and dental technician that are required; we must also organise our degree programmes in accordance with the shift in the division of responsibilities which improved dental health leads to. 

Different competences need to be brought together 

While the dentistry degree programme must ensure that there is a sufficient number of graduates to undertake the treatment tasks that are assessed as being required, in particular by the oldest section of the population and younger citizens with complicated mouth and dental conditions, we must also recognise that an ever growing section of the population will only need a check-up and possibly preventive measures when they visit the dentist.

In dentistry these are known as low-tech services, covering dental check-ups, simple diagnostics and prevention, which can be handled by a dental hygienist. 

In different parts of the healthcare sector we therefore see an increasing number of collaborative teams, where the patient is met and treated by a team of different professionals, for example in the case of diabetics. 

On the basis of this combined with the Danish Health and Medicines Authority's projections, we at Aarhus University took the decision in 2015 to merge the units responsible for training dentists and the other participants in the odontology team; i.e. dental hygienists, dental surgery assistants and clinical dental technicians. 

Duty to respond to changes

The content of every education has to be continuously adapted so that it matches the needs of society. At the same time, there will be sharp focus on how the students from the different fields of study are trained to collaborate in a close-knit team. Just as they will experience when they leave their educational institution and have to practice their profession in the real world.

This adaptation and coordination of the odontology study programmes makes a lot of sense in a societal context, and has also been requested by the students themselves over a number of years.

Recently attention has been focused on the importance of dental and oral diseases such as e.g. periodontosis in a health context. Internationally these diseases are viewed as being just as serious and challenging for the health of the population and national health economics as diabetes, cardiovascular illness, musculoskeletal diseases and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

As a university, we have an obligation to educate graduates who are equipped to meet the requirements and expectations of the population towards prevention and treatment. And this must take place in an intensive and interdisciplinary research and knowledge-based collaboration.

This article was published in Altinget on 6 April 2016.