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Written By

Andrew Cramb


College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

31 August 2022

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Student-led research maps the pathway of JCU Dentistry graduates

Six fourth-year dentistry students have investigated factors that shape JCU Dentistry graduates’ career pathways and working locations, and in doing so ignited their own passion for rural health.

Access to dentists is an increasing barrier faced by rural and remote communities across Australia. JCU’s Bachelor of Dental Surgery is a socially accountable program designed to address workforce shortages in these communities to better meet their oral health care needs.

As part of their fourth-year research project, JCU Dentistry students Ulrike Fehlberg, Michael Atta, Holly Henson, Harjot Nahal, Abanoub Saleeb and Lize Potgieter investigate the pathways of graduates to determine how the degree is helping to address the need in underserved communities.

The students designed a mixed methods study analysing graduate outcomes survey data, under the guidance of supervisors Associate Professor Dileep Sharma, Associate Professor Felicity Croker, and Dr Torres Woolley. Following their analysis, the students then interviewed graduates between 2013 and 2020 to examine the barriers and enablers to working in metropolitan areas versus regional, rural or remote areas.

According to their analysis, extended rural clinical placements were the main driver prompting clinicians to seek practice in non-metropolitan areas.

“Our preliminary findings suggest that the early career outcomes and choices of JCU dental graduates are aligned with the workforce needs of regional, rural and remote communities,” Holly says.

“The fact that extended rural placements were the main driver shows the effectiveness of the JCU program in producing graduates that meet workforce needs,” she added.

JCU Dentistry students involved in the project: Ulrike Fehlberg, Michael Atta, Holly Henson, Harjot Nahal, Abanoub Saleeb and Lize Potgieter.

Findings nurture a growing passion for rural oral health

Other findings from their investigation included:

  • Personal circumstances including partner locations were a major influence on work choices.
  • Closeness to social networks was important for work-life balance and reducing social isolation.
  • Workforce retention was impacted by a lack of clinical support and mentoring for new graduates.
  • A high degree of flexibility and adaptability is required in non-metropolitan areas due to limited resources and lack of access to specialists.
  • COVID-19 impacted various aspects of graduate employment opportunities and personal circumstances and requires further exploration.

“Supporting and mentoring new graduates practising in non-metropolitan areas is essential for facilitating retention. Our research suggests that the impact of COVID-19 on work location can be further explored."

JCU Dentistry Student Holly Henson

Another of the students involved in the project, Ulrike Fehlberg, says the qualitative component of the project allowed them to capture plenty of testimonials that highlighted the rewarding aspects of being a rurally based dentist.

“Interviewees in this study have also had many fun, adventurous stories and unique learning experiences that they gained by working rurally,” Ulrike says.

Ulrike Fehlberg and Holly Henson presenting their research poster at the 2022 National Rural Health Conference.

Directing dentists to rural practice

The students hope that their research findings will contribute to informing strategies that address the maldistribution of dentists towards metropolitan and private practice through curriculum redesign and greater retention of graduate dentists in rural and public practice.

At the 2022 National Rural Health Conference, the students presented early evidence on the career choices and outcomes of the first eight cohorts of JCU BDS graduates since graduation. The biennial forum by the National Rural Health Alliance aims to inform and inspire our current and future remote health workforce.

“The National Rural Health Conference where we presented our findings allowed me to meet many different health professionals from all areas who are also passionate about rural and remote healthcare,” Holly says. “We were privileged enough to hear about their research and personal experiences and to form networks, which made the entire experience even more worthwhile.”

Ulrike adds, “The wonderful group of passionate and dedicated health professionals at the National Rural Health Conference working towards closing the rural health gap have motivated and inspired me to work rurally after graduation."

Holly says the findings have reaffirmed in her mind the inequities in the dental workforce in regional, rural, and remote Australia and furthered her interest in working in these settings.

“I was already interested in working rurally upon graduating and am the Senior Dentistry Representative for Club RHINO, so I was aware of some of these, but hearing the experiences from previous JCU BDS graduates has both further inspired me to continue this interest in my career and helped prepared me for the barriers I might face when entering the workforce,” Holly says.

As these students' research indicates, a major component of fostering a rural focus is through the Bachelor of Dental Surgery's capstone experience; two 18-week rural placements in the degree's final year. Read fifth-year student Sowmya Bolla's story, where she shares why her capstone experience in Mount Isa was so formative for her.

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