My experience as starting out as an associate dentist after training was an exciting but challenging time for me.
It's been nine years now since I qualified, and I'm still finding challenges with keeping up to date, restrictions on equipment and maintaining my finances.
I thought it might be helpful to other younger dentists out there to outline some of the challenges we face and some of my tips on how to overcome them.
1. Stayed informed
Dentistry is constantly changing: materials, techniques and even treatments, including the treatment options available on NHS. It is sometimes difficult to keep on top of, and keep up to date with.
Quite often it would be easy just to follow and do what your practice principle or manager says. However, it is important as associates, as dentists, we seek information from a variety of sources and keep ourselves informed and up to date.
2. Get networked
CPD is partly designed to help with this but I feel it is so important for associates to be in a network of friends or colleagues that you can talk to and use as a sounding board.
I have been very fortunate to have a good group of colleagues and friends from university and vocational training with whom I have kept in touch, discussed thoughts and ideas, attended courses, and carried out peer review.
Dentistry can often be an isolating and stressful profession – you sit in a surgery all day, and can often get bogged down by the daily grind. It's really important to create your own support network.
Another way to get engaged, is to use your BDA membership – there are lectures, events and joining your local branch or section, is a great way to get informed and get networked.
I always remember being told as a vocational trainee the most important part of the course is the tea break, as that's when you can discuss issue with your peers and I have so far found that to be true.
3. Wider issues: dental politics and the future of dentistry
On a wider scale, discussions on the way NHS dentistry is being run and its future, is the subject of in depth and lengthy discussions between Government, and a whole range of other organisations (including the BDA).
Issues like Brexit, the increasing cost of materials, regulation, and the phasing out of amalgam, the list goes on…..many young dentists may have heard of these things in passing, but have no idea how this might impact on them now, and in the future.
Most of us probably just 'go with the flow' and don't think too far ahead of our next patient, but the problem with that is, then who is going to ensure our profession has a viable future and our patients are being looked after with the best care we can provide.
Perhaps we need to be more informed and more opinionated – getting involved with the BDA, either at branch and section level, or even, perhaps, stepping up and having a voice on the Young Dentists Committee, is essential. It's not up to anyone else, it's up to you.
4. Developing skills: equipment, labs, materials
As an associate I would expect to have input in at least some of the material, equipment and lab options available by the practice. But quite often a practice will favour certain ones.
This may be because they can get a good price or rate for a certain material or from a certain lab. Alternatively, the principle may prefer using certain equipment due to familiarity or for cost-effectiveness.
This can be restrictive for associates who want to try out new materials, equipment, lab options and hamper your skill development and knowledge.
5. Plan your finances
Working under the Northern Ireland Health Service, we are based on a 'fee per item' system and the associates take home a percentage cut for this. This does come with some pressures and insecurities as to your income and planning your future finances.
There's also the issue of what happens if you take time off work for holiday or sickness. It's important to think about planning your holidays (if possible) in smaller chunks, so you don't take such a big financial hit in one month.
Sometimes you have to wait to get paid for a while after treatment is completed, depending on how the practice manages its finances. This can add to your stress levels, so it's important to know how the practice is going to pay you and when, so you can plan your finances ahead appropriate.
Some practices operate with a flat rate for the percentage cut for associates, others with a sliding scale where the more you earn the practice that month, the better percentage rate you get.
I have worked under both of these options. Whilst the flat rate provides more security the sliding scale can be a useful tool for some people to motivate them especially if they are offered a better percentage for the more they earn for the practice.
Most practices run a cut-off point each month for your targets, and it can be quite frustrating to miss out on a better percentage rate only by a small amount – make sure you are aware of the way the system works, and good communicate with your practice owner or manager, is a great way to ensuring you have a dialogue going and don't be afraid to negotiate, although it may not always go your way. But if you don't ask you definitely don't get!
Ryan Cowden, BDA Young Dentist Convenor
Associate Dentist, Belfast
Want more tips? Come to our dental associates event
Join us in Belfast on Friday 13 April to explore the current challenges of associates, how to make your associateship work for you and how to manage your finances - the event offers 5.5 hours CPD - book online
Supporting young dentists: into practice
The BDA supports dentists at all stage in their careers – try out Into Practice app, which has information for newly-qualified dentists and aims to support your transition into practice. The app is free for BDA members.