Dental education during COVID-19: Stress, anxiety and isolation
Dental students, especially those at the undergraduate level, face various challenges during their studies, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made it an exceptionally difficult time. In addition to practising hand skills and acquiring theoretical knowledge, dental students are required to see patients in person at a relatively early stage of their studies, which sets dentistry apart from other courses of study. Even though students are often nervous to see their first patients, we hope that after completing their portfolio they will be confident enough to work on their own in the future.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a serious impact on dental appointments: either patients were unwilling to visit dentists, especially dental students at dental schools, or institutes were unwilling to accept patients owing to new safety procedures and protection protocols. It impacted many industries and affected the work of not only undergraduate students but also qualified dentists continuing their further education.
Staying at home and isolating oneself from professional interactions, such as dental exhibitions and continuing professional development seminars and conferences, has taken a toll on the mental health of the younger generation and negatively affected their education.
“Isolation resulted in increased levels of anxiety among some dental students”
The UK Office for National Statistics stated that around one in six (17%) adults had experienced some form of depression in summer 2021, noting a slight increase since early 2021 (21%). According to the data, the rate has increased twofold since the beginning of the pandemic (10%). Unfortunately, the data reveals that younger adults and women were more likely to experience some form of depression during the pandemic, over one in three (32%) women aged 16–29 years experiencing depressive symptoms, compared with 20% of men of the same age. This is something that we have also observed in our students.
Isolation resulted in increased levels of anxiety among some dental students. Being able to interact with dental professionals at exhibitions and conferences used to provide a grounding in reality, but this has not been possible since the beginning of the pandemic. Hopefully, as we move out of the clutches of COVID-19 and return to some form of normality, students will be able to have professional face-to-face interactions again, and this will improve their overall well-being.
Moving out of the pandemic
I also talked to Dr Jason Berry, director of undergraduate dental education at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry at Queen Mary University of London, about the additional challenges that dental students have had to face owing to COVID-19. He explained that the students’ clinical teaching has been severely reduced by the pandemic. This has resulted in anxiety, as students have been unsure of whether they will qualify on time or will need to extend their courses.
Thankfully, additional clinics are now running to make up for the shortfall in clinical experience, and it is anticipated that all students will qualify on time. Where possible, teaching was moved to an online platform, which the students fully embraced. This mode of teaching will now be continued as part of a blended approach, a mixture of online and face-to-face teaching. As we move out of the pandemic, each year group will face different issues related to COVID-19, and the requirements and timetables of each of these cohorts will have to be adjusted to make up for the deficit in teaching. It will be a few years until things stabilise, but in the meantime, we need to be positive and focused.