In 2008, the Faculty of Dentistry implemented its Rural Placement Program to provide dental students with an experience of providing clinical care in rural locations. The program allows students to spend one month in one of three rural NSW locations - Ballina, the Central Tablelands or Dubbo - gaining exposure to a broad range of opportunities and advantages that may not available in metropolitan placements.
Fourth-year Doctor of Dental Medicine student Gezal Marial has just returned from a placement in Ballina. She explains why the experience was so valuable.
"Some of the patients I treated were more medically compromised or had more complex cases than I had ever been exposed to in Sydney," she says. "It made me realise the limitations of accessible healthcare in rural locations, and the restricted referral systems, available equipment and materials in the public hospital setting."
Other students who have undertaken rural placements agree with Gezal's observation that the wider range of diverse tasks performed in rural settings allowed them to increase their skills, knowledge and understanding of patient care, while the more limited access to equipment and resources helped develop their understanding of the challenges of rural healthcare provision.
"Limited dental resources and equipment and a less-than-optimal working environment were my biggest challenges during my Central Tablelands placement," says final-year Doctor of Dental Medicine student Rui Dai.
"However, those same challenges provided me with the most powerful learning experiences. I learned to use limited resources [and] adapt to the environment, and learned various clinical skills and knowledge from supervising dentists as well as other onsite dental professionals."
Dai adds that the experience enhanced her understanding not only of providing dentistry treatment in rural locations but of some of the gaps in overall healthcare education.
"There's increased need for oral health promotion in the Aboriginal population," she says. "There's also a need for educating allied health professionals, such as general medical practitioners, about dental emergency management."
Pro-Dean of Dentistry Professor Heiko Spallek says it is important for the University to continue encouraging its students to undertake rural placements, due to the low number of health and medical professionals in these areas.
"It is our obligation to the community to provide a comprehensive rural experience to encourage new dental graduates to work in remote and rural areas," Professor Spallek says. "By doing so we contribute to the health workforce development in rural and remote Australia through the training and career development of dental students."
Marial advises other students considering a rural placement to "embrace the rural experience and immerse yourself in it," while Dai recommends "being organised and willing to adapt to the less-than-optimal working environment, and also working together with the onsite allied health professionals and other oral health professionals".