It’s been an eventful year for Helen Falcon. After retiring from her role as lead Postgraduate Dental Dean for England and for Thames Valley and Wessex, Helen was awarded an MBE in the Queen's birthday honours list. Her endless drive, ambition and dedication to dental education services earned her the well-deserved title after she was nominated by colleagues. Here Helen explains how it feels to be awarded an MBE, why change is never easy to implement in the workplace and how education and learning is always evolving in the dental field.
Congratulations on your MBE! How did it feel to be awarded such a prestigious title?
It was a real thrill when the letter arrived. I’m honoured to have been recognised, and am really proud to have been put forward by my colleagues.
Dental health education has been a clear focus of your career, what made you choose to go down this route and where did you identify a need for change?
I began my career in the community dental service followed by general practice. After my children were born I then got another job in the community dental service working for Jane Rhodes, someone who was quite far-sighted, as she felt very strongly that we shouldn’t be going into schools teaching children about oral health unless we understood properly how to teach. She encouraged me to get involved in dental health education and to complete a teaching certificate and that’s when I first became interested in the theory and practice of education. I soon began to realise it was different from dentistry and complemented my clinical knowledge and skills. It had been the case for many years that dentists passed on knowledge from one generation to the next without always really understanding why and how effective learning works.
When I became a vocational trainer and then training advisor, (what would be known today as a Training Programme Director) I realised that at that time there was no proper structure to how dentists were trained to be teachers. That’s something I felt passionately about, and much later when I became the Postgraduate Dean I had the ability to do something about it.
What have been your highlights of your career in dentistry?
One of the things I am most proud of is commissioning the COPDEND Standards for Dental Educators. This was achieved by consulting with practitioners and experts and making sure people understood what the expectations of dental educators are, what needed to be in place initially and what needed to be worked on. In time that would help to shape future training courses and programmes. For example, the Certificate in Clinical Education course, developed by The Oxford Deanery and accredited by Oxford Brookes University, is designed around the standards that we produced.
The COPDEND Quality Assurance Standards for Dental CPD are also really important. The CPD industry is huge, a lot of time, money and effort is spent on CPD and it seemed really important to make sure that it is of a good quality, well-planned and delivered. It's essential that the people who are paying for it, which is usually the dental teams themselves, have some way of knowing that a course is going to give them what they want and is worth spending time and money on.
What advice would you give to healthcare professionals on finding the right CPD?
- Have a good personal development plan and be honest about where the gaps are in your own knowledge and skills. There’s lots of published evidence to show that professionals like to go on courses about the subjects they already know a lot about. However, if you’re going to be a well-rounded practitioner, you need to fill real gaps.
- Keep up-to-date with changes in the profession and update your personal development plan accordingly. Legal requirements, rules and social norms change over a career; I know that dentistry 40 years ago was very different to what it is now, and the pace of change seems to be increasing, so you have to keep at it!
- Make sure the speaker has the right knowledge and attributes to teach – just because someone’s entertaining, and you have a good time, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to learn anything new – although there’s nothing wrong with enjoying CPD!
- Be sure that the course has proper aims and objectives and you understand before you pay your money or turn up what you’re going to get, i.e. what level it’s at and exactly what the subject matter covers.
- Check whether you will get support before and after the course. Is it just a case of turning up to the lecture theatre and listening to an expert telling you about what they’ve done? Or will you get continued support? Dentistry is a practical skill. Ideally, you need to be able to work with your own case material and there are courses like that around. They may be more expensive, but could be better value than single lectures or even online courses that don’t directly address your individual needs.
Additional guidance for choosing the right CPD can be found in COPDEND’s Quality Assurance Framework for Dental Workforce Development.
You worked with us to create the e-learning module Prevention in Practice: Delivering Better Oral Health. Why do you think this was such an important CPD module for Dental Care Professionals?
I think the production of the Delivering Better Oral Health documents by Public Health England was a key change in dentistry. We’d talked about prevention for a long time and there were some very good publications around, but this was the first time there had been a national focus from the highest level.
The document itself was something very unusual and new and it was sent to every single practice, so the idea of the e-learning module was to make it come alive. I know an awful lot of dentists and DCPs have used the module.
It was great using that particular platform because it was referenced back to the material, so if you wanted to just skim it you could, and if you wanted to get into some of the work in-depth and look at some of the research behind it you could do that too.
Alongside this, we used interactive elements with quizzes and case study learning techniques, and this was a great way to deliver a diverse range of learning methods.
Personally, I am surprised that that prevention and oral health promotion was never one of the GDC’s recommended core subjects as it’s the core of what we do. So, as it’s not regulated nationally nor a legal requirement like health and safety training, I felt it was really important to make it easy for people to do that particular aspect of CPD.
You were fundamental in establishing the online portfolio for Dental Foundation Training. Why do you think this was such a key change in dental education?
The portfolio is a really important tool for people who are training and learning. Keeping a portfolio is something that most dentists don’t particularly enjoy or want to do because they would rather get on with doing the treatment and working with their patients. However, you have to document things in this day and age.
In the olden days, when the portfolio was all done on paper, it was a very laborious task and meant it wasn’t always easy to encourage people to complete the portfolio regularly. There was a tendency to complete it all at the eleventh hour and, therefore, it wasn’t always as up to date or relevant as we’d like. However the time interventions feature of the new electronic portfolio encourages foundation dentists to complete it regularly and accurately.
Educationally it is really important to be able to be able to look back and see what you’ve done, how you’ve developed and grown, and what progress you’ve made. And with the imminent introduction of Satisfactory Assessed Completion of Foundation Training, it’s very important to have useful material to support decisions about giving someone a certificate of completing a programme.
The system will also allow comparisons across the country in terms of levels of experience that dentists are getting in different training practices and that’s a good way to make sure the standards are being maintained across the board.
There is a significant investment made in the training and future careers of dental graduates and we’ve got a responsibility to demonstrate that we are achieving a good standard and continuously improving training, and the online portfolio gives us the tools to look at that. There will doubtless be even greater focus on demonstrating this as time goes on. It’s about auditing, demonstrating best practice, and making sure we’re doing what’s needed.
People forget sometimes that for dentistry there’s only one year of formalised compulsory postgraduate training, compared with many years for doctors. That means we only get one year to provide a consistent level of support to last young professionals for many years. I really feel that we have to do the very best we can in that first year to demonstrate what we’re doing to support the students and those already in the profession.
I think the new portfolio is fantastic, it’s got a great look and feel, it’s much easier to use than earlier versions and it means that anyone that needs to can access the relevant sections.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career?
Everybody has their own view of how they’d like the world to be, which doesn’t always agree with how the world would like it to be. So there’s always a bit of needing to understand the mood of wherever you are and working out where you can make a difference. And this has been one of the biggest challenges, finding out what’s important at a particular time, what really matters and working out how best to improve things. Sometimes in these situations, you can feel quite a lone voice, and it can take a long time, because people find change uncomfortable, even if it’s for the best. So I think working with people to try and get them to take on board changes has been one of the most difficult but also the most rewarding aspects of my career.
The other thing that’s caused me quite a lot of concern over the years is seeing members of the profession getting into difficulty. Often this has been because they were not being absolutely upfront and honest with patients about their treatment and the options open to them, or have taken their eye off the ball and not kept up to date. The tendency to blur the edges between private and NHS treatment has caused a lot of people to come to grief and I think we need to not be frightened, be really upfront and say truthfully this is everything you’re entitled to if you’re under the NHS, and this is the benefit of having private treatment. I would really like there to be absolute clarity for patients about risks and benefits, options and choices and hopefully much of the distress caused to colleagues from undergoing disciplinary processes can be avoided.
Also, when it comes to funding healthcare, dentistry quite often gets forgotten, almost until the end, so another challenge has been having to be there to stand up for oral health and dentistry and reminding a whole range of people that the mouth is a part of the body and deserves just as much care and attention.
If I gave you a magic wand to change one thing in dentistry what would it be?
I’d really like to see something put in place to tackle the oral health needs of the older generation. I’m really pleased about all the work that’s going on in oral health promotion for children and sugar reduction; that’s a brilliant way the profession has worked together. At the other end of the spectrum, there are more older people than ever before and many are frail, vulnerable or housebound. One of the successes of dentistry and improvement in care is that they do still have teeth, and of course they need looking after.
These individuals often require high-quality, time-consuming and domiciliary care and that’s one of the big issues of our time that we’ve not tackled yet. It’s a complex and expensive business and I really think we need a good national strategy and joined up thinking across the profession.
What advice would you give to your successor?
Stay positive, focus on the things that really matter and recognise the tremendous talent that there is within the deanery team; the tutors, the trainers, the training programme directors and the admin teams are superb.
And finally, has a career in dentistry fulfilled your expectations?
Dentistry has been a great career and I’ve really enjoyed it. There are so many opportunities within the profession and I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to do so many different and interesting things.