Committing to high quality dental education

Committing to high quality dental education

11 December 2018
Model with teeth

Encouraging the dental professions to engage actively with education providers to ensure high quality education is just one way the Australian Dental Council (ADC) works in the interest of public safety, writes President, Deborah Cockrell. 

One of the ADC’s roles given to us by the Dental Board of Australia (DBA) is to accredit education and training programs leading to registration. We do this by assessing programs against our Accreditation Standards to ensure graduates meet the professional competencies required for practice. Our focus is always on securing the threshold outcomes required for registration in Australia and for public safety.

I sometimes receive feedback, particularly from fellow dentists, about the quality of dental education. I am told anecdotes of recent graduates lacking the skills or experience needed to carry out certain dental procedures competently or independently, with comparisons frequently made to the ‘higher standards’ of the past. 

Dental practitioners, understandably, have a high interest in the education that provides the gateway into their professions. They do not wish to see standards fall and sometimes have very specific expectations of what education should look like as a result. However, we cannot act on anecdote alone and, in the absence of a formal concern being raised, we are limited in how we can respond to this feedback. 

It’s important to note that we are always monitoring accredited programs to make sure they continue to meet our standards. We do this in variety of ways including through reporting requirements for education providers and by considering changes to accredited programs.

We welcome concerns about accredited programs as one source of information helping us in our monitoring role.  Many concerns about programs do not raise issues that impact upon our standards and can be most effectively handled by the education provider itself. Under our standards, education providers are expected to have an effective complaints process in place, with complaints an opportunity for the provider to put matters right, to learn, and to improve. So, we will only act in response to a concern raised with us if there is evidence that a program does not fully meet our standards. 

When we do need to intervene in the interests of public safety, our processes have real ‘teeth’. We can put in place conditions a program has to meet in order to remain accredited and, ultimately, we have the ability to withdraw accreditation from a program failing to meet our standards. This means the program would no longer be able to produce graduates eligible for registration. This is a serious step, but an important power to have for public safety.  

To improve the accessibility and transparency of our concerns process, we recently published more information on the types of concerns considered by the ADC, and the rationale used to decide whether there is a need to investigate further. Our standards require education providers to demonstrate how they obtain relevant external input into the design and management of their programs, including from the profession, with a focus on using this input to review and improve. Programs often establish standing committees with external membership with the aim of gathering and reviewing feedback and generating proposals for change. Making sure these mechanisms are effective is challenging – it relies upon commitment from the education provider to avoid tokenism by acting on the feedback they receive, and from representatives of the profession by participating actively and constructively.

Peer review is at the heart of the ADC’s processes and I am never less than grateful for the members of the profession who take time out of their busy day jobs to contribute their invaluable expertise to our work. Similarly, the active contribution of the profession to the work of education providers is, in my view, crucial to maintaining high quality dental education, bridging the potential gap between education and practice. 

It is often said that ‘prevention is better than cure’ and by providing external input to education providers the dental professions have the real opportunity to raise emerging issues, before they become concerns, and to play an active part in delivering education that meets the needs of the sector and the public it serves. This is undoubtedly in the interests of us all.