As the numbers of practicing dentists continue to rise in the United States, the number of dentists who work in clinical academic settings in the United Kingdom also is increasing after a period of decline, reports the Dental Schools Council. But while these professionals have a sharper focus on teaching, the organization says, their ability to focus their resources on research may be diminishing over time.
This increase is part of an overall trend that has seen their numbers rise by 24.8% to reach 594.3 full-time equivalent dental academics since the Dental Schools Council began its survey in 2000. However, the organization notes that there are difficulties in recruiting for vacancies, particularly in research-active roles at the lecturer and senior lecturer levels across most specialties. The council believes further research into these obstacles is necessary.
“While the rate of increase has been changeable over the years, dental schools can be very proud of the work they have done to bring the numbers of dental clinical academics back to a strong level. This is of significant benefit to the quality of dental care in the UK,” said Callum Youngson, BDS, DDSc, chair of the Dental Schools Council.
“At the same time, more needs to be done to highlight the champions of clinical academic dentistry, particularly their important research, which drives innovation in dental care,” said Youngson. “We must hold up the role models such as these to encourage other gifted clinical academic dentists to make contributions to the future of dentistry as well as to make clear how important dentistry is within broader clinical academia and its key role in public health.”
Dental clinical academic posts are supported by a mixture of university funding (74.9%), the National Health Service (21.5%), and other sources (3.6%), a breakdown that is similar to previous years without dramatic change. Most are located in England (75.7%), followed by Scotland (14.1%), Wales (6.4%), and Northern Ireland (3.8%), proportions that also have not changed significantly. There are 18 publicly funded UK dental schools in the organization.
The General Dental Council recognizes 13 specialties, while the Dental Schools Council also recognizes oral and maxillofacial surgery and general dental practice. The greatest number of dental clinical academics work in restorative dentistry (28.1%), followed by general dental practice (15.4%) and oral surgery (10.2%). The smallest specialties are dental and maxillofacial radiology and oral and maxillofacial surgery, both at 1.2%, and oral microbiology at 0.5%.
Despite the overall increase, though, the British Dental Association (BDA) is calling upon the Dental Schools Council to address the factors still causing personnel shortages, noting that 6.4% of all academic posts were vacant last year.
“It is welcome news that the decline in clinical academic staffing levels has bottomed out, but this is not quite mission accomplished. High-quality education is the bedrock of an effective dental workforce, and we need to see a strategy to keep teaching numbers prioritized and at safe and sustainable levels,” said Giles McCracken, BDS, PhD, chair of the BDA’s Central Committee for Dental Academic Staff.
“We are still grappling with a national shortage of dental academics. While roads appear to be opening up for those who want to focus on learning rather than research, clinical teachers suffer from the lack of a visible and attainable career pathway. Our universities still face enduring difficulties with recruitment, with key posts left open and unfilled,” said McCracken.
Meanwhile, the Dental Schools Council hopes to use this data to work with other organizations to strengthen the UK’s dental workforce. It also recommends continued monitoring of staffing levels while balancing both research and teaching contracts; developing clear and attractive clinical academic career pathways and funding; investigating barriers to filling vacant posts, including the impact of Brexit; and striving for a more diverse and inclusive workforce.
“The onus is on us to demonstrate how the dental clinic academic team’s expertise is a resource to be used by those in positions of power for the benefit of dentistry, patient care, and society,” said Youngson.