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Last Updated: Monday, 17 March 2008, 10:30 GMT
Phantom heads help solve dental crisis
By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

One of the phantom heads
Ready for a filling?

Thirty-two pitched drills descend towards 32 gaping mouths, as white-gowned dentists prepare to get to work.

The "phantom head" room at the UK's newest dental school is not the place for someone who's scared of the dentist.

The first new school for four decades, the Peninsula Dental School, Plymouth, opened its doors this academic year and boasts some of the finest technology available in Europe.

The head room, with its realistic mannequins, gives students the opportunity to practise their technique in conditions which most closely reflect real life.

Patient contact

As a result, it is hoped that they will be able to start treating real NHS patients during their first year of training - albeit it under close supervision - carrying out basic treatments and tests.

If all goes to plan, around 500 patients a day from across the South West could be seen by the students - making a big difference to waiting lists.

Dean, Liz Kay
The feedback I have had ...... is that our students are far in advance of any other students at the same stage
Liz Kay

A recent survey by the Citizens Advice showed that lack of access has prevented one in six people from seeing an NHS dentist for almost two years.

Professor Liz Kay, dean of the dental school, said her students had already showed signs of picking up skills much faster than their contemporaries at other dental schools.

"In traditional dental schools, students do two years of science based study before they do anything remotely connected with the patients," she said.

"We on the other hand have devised a curriculum, which is very intensively patient-centred.

"They start treating real patients six months into their course, so therefore we felt we had to have very close simulation to the real situation so that they were very well practised before they hit the public.

Work station
Each of the students has their own work station

"The feedback we have had so far is that the students absolutely love the course.

"And the feedback I have had from all the external lecturers and people we bring in to talk to the students, is that our students are far in advance of any other students at the same stage."

Professor Kay added that the tutors always impressed on students that they must treat the heads as if they are real patients.

"That way they get into good habits early," she said.

They even have 'lift music'

Dr Tracy de Peralta, associate director of clinical dentistry, said the 64 students are each allocated their own head in a work pod, which they have to treat as their own surgery.

When working with their heads the students, who are set to graduate in 2011, have to wear gowns, rubber gloves and glasses to prevent cross-infection.

Each "patient" has its own medical history and dentures with realistic examples of dental caries or gum disease for the students to work on.

They even play the occasional burst of "lift music" to create the ambience of the dental surgery.

"It has been a really great experience, they are really more than phantom heads," said Dr de Peralta.

"I think the students get ready much quicker working with them."

Getting ready for patients

Student Ruairi Cunnane, 28, said he had enjoyed working with his head and that it was gradually preparing him for the time when he meets his first patient some time in the next couple of months.

"Every time we come in here, for about six hours a week we have the same head. You have the same case history so each time you come in it is like you are building on your treatment for the patient.

"You can have a little bit of fun because all the patients have names and you can make up a little personal history."

But he added: "It is easy to come in here and work with a plastic model, but ultimately you have to pass your skills on to real people."

Fellow student Nick Leakey, also 28, agreed - but stressed the heads were no substitute for the real thing.

"The equipment is amazing.

"It is a great learning aide.

"But I don't think there is any substitute for working with real patients, which will be nerve wracking and scary."



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