Dental postgraduate courses

dental postgraduate

Dr David Penn has a real passion as a dental postgraduate educator and often travels internationally to teach others about aesthetic dentistry. photography: imagesbyarunas@gmail.com

As a dental surgeon, entrepreneur and dentistry educator, Dr David Penn joins with colleagues in the field to explore the range of dental postgraduate vocational and training courses currently on offer. Heather Vaile reports

If you want to do more than the basic continuing professional development (CPD) required to stay registered but you don’t want to commit to years of extra study, you need to choose wisely when investing your training time, energy and money. 

There’s lot of free CPD out there and there’s a lot of fee-for-service,” says president of the Australian Dental Association (ADA), Dr Hugo Sachs. “A lot of the industry-based courses have minimal cost because they’re flogging a product at the same time but a lot of the more structured education is not and it comes with a price tag.

“Some providers are aligned with universities, some are aligned with academies and societies and some of them are just individuals, like overseas practitioners, that come out here and are sponsored by industry groups.

“We’ve always got concerns because there’s no vetting of those courses, and there’s no accreditation of those courses. We would like to see it a little bit better structured so that the outcomes of that education process are quantifiable. 

“Though the reality is, all graduate dentists are mature people who have gone through an education process and should be able to analyse what’s in the course and what their competence is in providing treatment that they may not necessarily have been provided with in their undergraduate training.”

Unaccredited courses

The accreditation of education providers and courses might sound a bit dull but it is important for three reasons: 

  • It helps potential students ascertain the quality and worth of what they’re committing to 
  • It shows that a training provider is serious about the education it offers and is willing to have their institution and educational products independently assessed to prove it
  • It helps employers assess job candidates based on the type of training they’ve completed.

Yet, when it comes to continuing professional development, an area where professionals of all stripes, including dentists, spend thousands of dollars on throughout their careers, the training landscape is awash with unaccredited courses.

“It is exceptionally difficult and time-consuming to accredit any postgraduate education or continuing professional development because there’s so many courses out there and you would need an accreditor,” says Dr Sachs.

“That is one thing that the Australian Dental Council (ADC) has stayed clear of; it is one thing that the Australian Dental Board has stayed clear of; it’s been offered to the Australian Dental Association but you’d need a huge amount of resources and there’s a minefield of legal complications in the accreditation process as well. 

“We’re probably not in the realms of being able to assess those because we don’t have the speciality in those areas. So as far as our organisation is concerned, you’d probably look to an organisation like the Australian Dental Council to provide that accreditation process.”

“We went through an incredible process. It took us about three years and millions of dollars to get accredited. The process is really, really onerous.”—Dr David Penn, Head of School, The Postgraduate School of Dentistry

No-one from the ADC was available to be interviewed for this article but Michael Guthrie, the director of Accreditation and Quality Assurance at the organisation, stated in an email that: “The ADC is appointed by the Dental Board of Australia [DBA] to accredit education and training programs for the purpose of registration. This includes postgraduate programs which lead to registration in one of the dental specialties approved by the DBA. We do not have any role in accrediting other postgraduate programs that do not lead to registration.”

However, one private dentistry education provider who has found a way around the accreditation dilemma is Dr David Penn, a successful Sydney dentist, medical appliance innovator and entrepreneur who graduated from the University of Sydney in 1978 and bought his first dental practice at the tender age of 22.

In addition to his clinical and entrepreneurial talents, Dr Penn has a real passion as a dentistry educator and he often travels internationally to teach others about aesthetic dentistry and, in particular, Invisalign.

In 2014, Dr Penn established Australia’s first private dentistry school called The Postgraduate School of Dentistry. The government-accredited private school offers webinars, CPD courses, scholarships and also, uniquely, a Graduate Diploma of Aesthetic Orthodontics (Sequential Aligner Therapy).

As his school is completely independent, and his courses could not be accredited through any of the usual higher education and ADC channels, Dr Penn went to the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA). This is a national regulator responsible for accrediting thousands of vocational and training courses in Australia. 

It is tasked with ensuring that nationally approved quality standards are met and maintained by industry sector training providers—and that its courses do what it says on the tin. 

No walk in the park

By way of contrast, universities have the advantage of being self-accredited but they still have to be registered with and audited by ASQA’s cousin, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TESQA). 

TESQA’s purpose is to safeguard student interests and the reputation of the higher education sector by providing quality assurance for Australia’s higher education providers.

As it turned out, it was just as well Dr Penn had the self-belief, unwavering vision and the resources to take on the accreditation challenge, because earning it for his school and his courses was no walk in the park. 

“We went through an incredible process,” he says. “It took us about three years and millions of dollars to get accredited. The process is really, really onerous,” he says. 

“Initially, the university dental schools were somewhat confused about our accreditation but ASQA immediately reviewed the process and confirmed that our accreditation met every standard required by the national regulator.

dental postgraduate

ADA president Dr Hugo Sachs says, “A lot of the industry-based courses have minimal cost because they’re flogging a product.” Photography: Nick cubbin

“We’re constantly audited, the audits are just unbelievably complex and the reporting as well. But the great thing about it is that it keeps our standards really high.

“The people who’ve actually gone through a fully qualifying course of a master’s degree, they have been trained in those areas where things do go pear-shaped and they have the capacity to treat those.”—Hugo Sachs, president,
Australian Dental Association

“There are lots of CPD courses out there that make all sorts of claims but they’re not accredited and that’s what sets us apart from everybody else. The other guys can hand out a certificate but ours is a serious qualification,” says Dr Penn. 

The school’s first graduate diploma course offers general practitioner dentists advanced clinical, theoretical and technical skills and knowledge in the disciplines of aesthetics, orthodontics and practice management (relevant to sequential aligner therapy). 

“All the students—every dentist that we’ve trained—are seeing a growing demand [for this kind of work] in their practice,” explains Dr Penn. “Globally, there’s far more interest in aesthetic procedures; there’s no question about that. It’s in every western democracy.

“The traditional kinds of dentistry are drying up—all the fillings and dentures—because fluoride in the water system has made a difference. Also, people’s hygiene and diets are better, so they aren’t getting as many holes in their teeth as they used to. The general public are better educated about preventative measures too.”

He describes the average age of his practitioner students as about 35 years and says the school attracts a mix of dentists. The one thing he says that all his students have in common is that “they are looking to broaden their skill set and deepen their knowledge. They’ve got the time to put into a serious academic undertaking. So rather than just going to a weekend course and learning a little, they really take the time to do something serious.”

Risky business

As for the huge number of CPD courses and workshops on offer in Australia that aren’t accredited or regulated in any way, Dr Sachs says: “From my viewpoint, and not necessarily the ADA’s viewpoint, there is always a risk that manufacturers will push their particular product in the process of delivering continuing education and we see that all the time. 

“But again, at the end of the day, the responsibility of using those products boils down to the individual dentist. They are the primary person involved in the delivery of the treatment to the patient. If they choose to use product X as delivered by company A and they abide by the materials and methodology of using that material, that’s fine but there’s more than one way of getting to that final result. 

“The reality is, some of these methods don’t necessarily work. There’s a failure rate. There’s a failure rate with hip and knee replacements, there’s a failure rate with a lot of things that we do medically and dentally. And patients have to be made aware of that, but the practitioners have to be equally qualified to be able to cope with those sorts of things.

“There’s a lot of very intricate dentistry going on these days, particularly in the arenas of implants, and surgical techniques such as sinus lifting and very complicated orthognathic surgery that are higher risk procedures. It’s about having adequate training and competence to handle things when they don’t necessarily go according to plan, that’s what education and experience is all about.  

“The people who’ve actually gone through a fully qualifying course of a master’s degree have been trained in those areas where things do go pear-shaped and they have the capacity to treat those.

“As a practitioner, I believe that you must continue your education throughout your practising career but you still also have to be cognisant of knowing where your skills finish and where you need to refer on.”

Ethical responsibility

Back at The Postgraduate School of Dentistry, Dr Penn is enthusiastic about the future of his institution and what it can offer dentists. When you speak with him about the school, it’s hard to escape the feeling that it’s an educational unicorn in a field full of horses.

“There’s a lot of cowboys around and a lot of people who are happy to take your money but who don’t necessarily give you the education that you need. It’s got to be done properly. And that’s why we went down the proper ASQA route.”—Dr David Penn, Head of School, The Postgraduate School of Dentistry

So what made him start it? “I feel after all the work that I’ve been doing that I want to give back to a lot of people. I think the primary thing for me [in establishing the school] was more educational than entrepreneurial,” he says. 

“When you get to a certain age, it’s a really lovely thing to be able to give back to younger people and I think we’ve almost got an ethical and moral responsibility to do that. It feels really good and there’s nothing better than seeing students understand the process and succeed. It’s wonderful. 

“Sure, I’d like to make this financially successful but my primary role here is as an educator.”

Major growth area

Dr Penn’s other passion for medical appliance innovations is also shining through. “The other thing about our school is that we’re now heavily involved in research and development. Because we’re all privately funded, we’ve actually partnered with some leading biomedical engineers. We’re working on about seven different projects at the moment, all of which are cutting edge.

“I won’t say too much about it but it’s in oral medicine and orthodontics. And these are really exciting projects. So I’ve employed some people in their thirties and forties who are heavily involved in these projects and it’s a very, very exciting time for us. We’ve got some fantastic products.

“We’ve also got a Graduate Diploma of Oral Medicine which is being written at the moment and that will hopefully be ready towards the end of this year. And that’s very exciting. 

“But the big growth area for us is in research and development. As the new technology develops and we’re at the cutting edge of the education of the new technology, we’re getting access to see what’s available. It’s a great opportunity for us to develop products.”

And now to one last question. What advice would Dr Penn give to dentists who want to get ahead but who don’t want to specialise in one area? “If you are going to do courses to deepen your skill set, do it properly. Invest time and energy into doing it properly,” he says.

“There’s a lot of cowboys around and a lot of people who are happy to take your money but don’t necessarily give you the education that you need. It’s got to be done properly. And that’s why we went down the proper ASQA route, the accreditation process, the whole thing, because we wanted to do it properly and to be taken seriously. And we want to export this to the world. 

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