A 100-year first

A female dentist performs a check up on a male patient.

RCSI is partnering with Peninsula Dental School on the development of an innovative curriculum that will herald a new era in dental education in Ireland

The new School of Dentistry at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences becomes just the third in the State and the first to open in more than 100 years, with the launch of the BDS NUI RCSI programme, admitting the first cohort of students in September 2025.

However, dentistry is not a new endeavour for our university. We have a strong heritage in dental education and training, running an undergraduate dental school for 99 years up to 1976, granting a Licenciate in Dental Surgery to some 1,600 dentists. Today, the RCSI Faculty of Dentistry continues to examine at postgraduate levels and RCSI has responsibility for the training of oral and maxillofacial surgeons in Ireland.

Indeed, Theodore Stack, the first Professor of Dentistry in either England or Ireland was appointed at RCSI in 1884. Stack never intended to be a dentist. He was headed for a career in medicine when a bout of rheumatic fever left him so deaf, at 26, that he could no longer use a stethoscope.

At that time, the population’s need for dental care was high but their demand for it was low. Fast forward to 2024 and the demand for access to dental care outstrips what many health systems can provide.

Demand is also high among young people who want to study dentistry; last year’s CAO applications saw a 20% increase in the numbers applying for one of Ireland’s two existing degree programmes and we know that every year, many aspiring dentists travel outside of Ireland to undertake their training.

Since RCSI was established in 1784 by Royal Charter, generations of RCSI academics and leaders have sought out ways of responding to the needs of populations and health systems. From being the first university in Ireland to introduce graduate entry medicine to the first to introduce a programme on nurse prescribing, RCSI has been innovative and forward looking in its approach and single-minded in its focus on advancing healthcare and transforming the patient experience.

It is within that context that when the Irish government asked for expressions of interest to launch a new degree programme in dentistry, RCSI quickly moved to respond. That process has resulted in government support for the the establishment of a new School of Dentistry, and it is my enormous honour to have been appointed foundation Professor of Dentistry and Head of the School.
Our aspiration, and mission, is to reflect the RCSI mission to educate, nurture and discover for the benefit of human health, in the field of dentistry.

A transformation in dental education

We are delighted to be partnering with Peninsula Dental School (PDS) at the University of Plymouth, on the development of an innovative curriculum that will herald a new era in dental education in Ireland. Their award-winning programme offers an innovative and tested approach to dentistry education, combining first-rate community-based dental training with outstanding community dental care. It was recognised by the Times Higher Education Awards 2023, ranking first in the ‘Outstanding Contribution to the Local Community’ category, and The Guardian in 2024 as the top-ranked dental school in the UK.
Focusing clinical training in a primary care setting, PDS was one of the first dental schools to bring meaningful patient contact to students from the earliest months of their course as well as embedding community engagement within the curriculum, reflecting the reality of dental practice.

This community-based approach will transform the way dentists are educated in Ireland and reflects the reality that 90 – 95% of dentists in Ireland practice in primary care settings.

We also believe that this approach will drive improvements in oral health among disadvantaged communities in particular. Public authorities are struggling in many countries to recruit dentists to work in more socially deprived and rural areas and the evidence shows that graduates trained in treating public patients are more likely to continue working there.

One US study finds that community-based education improves dental students’ skill and confidence levels in treating underserved patients and that more time spent in community-based dental training may increase the number of graduates who elect to practice in community-based clinics as a first career choice.

Another US study notes that a well-structured community-based education programme results in increased positive attitudes towards servicing and treating underserved patients. The increased willingness to treat low-income and high-needs populations may be a result of students feeling more comfortable and confident in treating underserved populations as a result of their community experience.

We have close engagement with the Department of Health, the Dental Council, the Department of Higher Education and others, and we believe that our new BDS programme will meet and address Government health policy (Sláintecare and Smile Agus Sláinte) and patient needs.

We are pleased to have the support of the Dental Council in launching this new programme and we are fully committed to engaging with the Dental Council as we welcome the first cohort of students in 2025 and prepare for a full accreditation of our programme in due course.

A world-class community

The programme we are developing will ensure that students are fully prepared for a primary care dentistry career and, in addition, will provide the foundations on which to develop their knowledge and skills enabling them to enter any dental specialist training programme. Early patient contact is a hallmark of our approach, meaning that our students will have a focus on communication and interpersonal skills from their very first year.

We are committed to creating a learning environment that fosters active, engaged and authentic learning experiences and which promotes lifelong learning for professional practice. Our learning will actively promote positive growth, resilience and wellbeing and our students will benefit from RCSI’s well-established student welfare and career support ecosystem.

To deliver on our ambition, we need to build a world-class community of teaching staff. A very immediate priority is to engage with practising dentists, dental nurses and others involved in provision of dental care, who share our commitment to delivering an unrivalled and transformative student experience. We would especially like to talk to colleagues who have an interest in sharing their experience with the next generation but who may not have considered doing it formally until now.

RCSI provides an exciting and challenging environment for committed and talented colleagues to pursue their career. The university is committed to a culture of respect, collaboration, scholarship and innovation. In the School of Dentistry, we will offer access to training, academic titles, access to library, and research opportunities.

The next generation

I have been involved in teaching and professional development for many years and I have seen considerable advances in the practice of dentistry and changes in the needs of our population. I feel privileged now to have the opportunity to reflect upon how the education of the next generation of dentists can evolve, to ensure that dentists continue to play an important role in improving oral and general health, particularly of people in communities that have been underserved traditionally.


Professor Albert Leung.

Professor Albert Leung is Professor of Dentistry and foundation Head of the School of Dentistry at RCSI, University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

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Published: 8 July, 2024 at 07:58
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