Lifelong learning

Ireland’s Dental magazine columnist Paul O’Dwyer on his education adventure

As I closed the books on my final dental examinations in 1997, I heaved a sigh of relief – as I’m sure the class of 2014 have also done this month. Looking back, 1997 was a very different place for dentistry and, although I realised lifelong learning is a big part of the profession, I was pretty sure that I would not be in a lecture theatre again.

As the years passed and CPD points were earned, I attended day courses and the Irish Dental Association’s annual scientific conference. Getting the vital updates on new materials, techniques and equipment, I felt I was keeping up to date. But to my surprise, the ‘learning bug’ bit me once again last year and I enrolled on a masters degree in healthcare management.

Dentistry is changing. With the financial downturn and rise of consumerism, social media and reduced income, the management of our own resources in each clinic is vital. As dentists, we are all managers. If you are a one-man band, you manage your own practice, your staff and, most importantly, your patients. To me, the science of management seemed ethereal at best. Dentists are all task orientated – one patient, one problem, one solution.

As you read this, I’m sure you’re saying: “I’m not a manager!” However, despite ourselves, we inherently pick up many skills. The skill of negotiation (“You will improve your oral hygiene…”), the skill of compromise (“You take Friday off and I’ll get the other nurse to cover”), the skill of hard bargain (“I’ll buy a light cure handpiece… if you throw in 1,500 ampoules!!“).

In reflecting on these bi-products of practice, it struck me that further formal education in this field would help not only to solidify the ‘background skills’ gathered, but also clearly define methods for their use in day-to-day practice. And so I began casting about for post-graduate studies.

It was evident from my own research that the two-year healthcare management masters programme at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) seemed to fit the bill. Last September, some 16 years after last sitting in a formal course, I found myself in a class of 43 at the Institute of Leadership in the RCSI in Sandyford. It was a shock to the system. The last piece of high-tech equipment I used in college was a photocopier. This course is delivered by ‘blended learning’ – formal lectures three days per month with online support – and (most importantly) assignments every five to six weeks.

Re-engaging my little grey cells into critical thinking, research, reading and writing was a challenge. Unlike undergraduate days, the commitment of family, spouse and work featured heavily. Weekends were filled with the printer working overtime – and the Nilfisk left idly sitting in the corner.

The modular nature of the first year looks at many subjects which are essential in today’s profession. By closely examining organisational structure, evaluation and measurement, and operations management, the class was set a number of assignments to reflect the learning of each module.

My classmates were drawn from all levels and sectors of healthcare – clinical nurse managers, speech and language therapists, pharmacists and even dentists. Sometimes it’s easy to forget, as we stand in the four walls of our surgeries, that we are deliverers of healthcare in a larger picture of the nation’s health.

The peer-to-peer learning was, for me, the most remarkable feature of the course. Many of the other clinicians echoed a lot of the day-to-day issues we as dentists face – albeit in a different setting. The other three modules featured leadership, quality and risk management, and finance. The quality module was an eye-opener. A team assignment featuring five classmates meant a lot of online collaboration.

The applications to dentistry are evident. Indeed, Professor Tickle’s recent lecture at the Kilkenny IDA Conference echoed a lot of current thinking. Quality assurance will feature heavily in the provision of general dentistry in Ireland – something we can expect to be a bi-product of the impending Dentist Act.

As May fast approached, I was knee-deep in finance and a review of ‘Universal Health Insurance’. It was with a huge sigh of relief on 8 May that I put down the pen after my first three-hour paper in 17 years. Year two starts in September and will bring the same challenges. It is a very worthwhile course and extremely relevant for today’s health professions. Until then, the Nilfisk and I are becoming re-acquainted.