The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) – the UK’s major funder of applied health research – is looking for dental professionals to help lead and inspire others and drive improvements in patient care.

As well as funding individual research projects, delivering research on the ground and working with patients and the public to shape the research agenda, the NIHR also develops and supports the people who conduct and contribute to health research and develops skills of the next generation of researchers through its training and career development programmes – including many dental professionals.

There are more than 11 programmes currently open to dental professionals available from the NIHR, covering a range of levels from undergraduate through to opportunities for established investigators.

Seeking answers

Despite the number of opportunities, applications from dentists and dental care professionals pale in comparison to some other professions. Something the NIHR is trying to change.

‘First and foremost, it’s about quality, and finding ways to give better healthcare,’ said Professor Dave Jones, NIHR dean for faculty trainees. ‘A culture of questioning is very important for that, and that’s what clinical academics do – they ask questions about what they can do better, and because they are working with patients, they can see the gaps that lead to the questions, and they have the curiosity to seek the answers.

‘Clinical research should not be the preserve of medics, or any other individual disciplines. All health and social care professionals should get the chance to bring their questioning minds, and expertise, to the research table and make an ever-greater contribution to the delivery of quality care.

‘We want more dentists and dental care professionals at that table and we are working to promote the opportunities available to them more clearly.’

The fellowship

Opportunities include a range of NIHR fellowships, which support outstanding individuals to become research leaders of the future by buying out their salary costs, meeting their training and development costs and contributing to the research costs to fund an identified project.

Susan Bissett is a current NIHR doctoral research fellowship award holder and currently the only dental hygienist to have ever held an award.

She says: ‘I qualified as a dental hygienist in 1994. I had the opportunity to work in a variety of clinical settings, including primary and secondary care as well as in NHS and private practices – and even as a tutor for dental hygienists at Newcastle University, but one thing I hadn’t done was research.

‘A research role came up at Newcastle University – I went for it and ended up leading a small project of my own with funding from a dental charity looking at healthcare professionals’ awareness of the links between diabetes and gum disease.

‘At the end, I had more questions than answers and therefore I wanted to continue my research; the NIHR was an obvious choice.

‘I applied in 2014 with a plan for a project that built on findings from my masters research and am pleased to say that I was successful. I am now halfway through my award and I have already produced a lot of data.

‘Over the past few years, research has become a hot topic with dental care professionals – more people are now talking about research and I am using this as an opportunity to encourage more people to get involved. The time I have to spend on research also means I have dedicated time to write articles, give presentations and publish my work.’

Getting involved

The NIHR Integrated Academic Training (IAT) programme provides further opportunities for dentists to get involved and includes those awarded to universities, NHS organisations and Health Education England (HEE) partnerships via formal allocation and personal awards, including the NIHR clinician scientist award and the NIHR in-practice fellowship.

Bhupinder Dawett is a former NIHR in-practice fellow, who is passionate about getting more dentists involved in research.

He says: ‘The NIHR in-practice fellowship enabled me to continue to work in practice while I developed my research skills. It opened up so many new opportunities – I have several roles at present including being one of the clinical advisers for the General Dental Council, and a clinical lecturer post part-time in King’s College Guy’s Hospital London where we do a lot of evaluative work for product manufacturers, which has made us a key opinion leader with them.

‘I’ve also written several articles and presented at conferences; but, more importantly for me, it’s helped me with skills to support my dental practice and community to develop research ideas and actually put them into practice.’

An expert body

In addition to the NIHR fellowships and the IAT programme schemes, the list of eligible professions for the HEE-funded Integrated Clinical Academic (ICA) programme was recently expanded to include dental hygienists, dental therapists and dental nurses.

The ICA programme has five elements and a mentorship scheme specifically designed to support non-medical healthcare professionals develop clinical academic careers.

The NIHR’s goal is to further increase the range of health and social care professional backgrounds involved in research for the benefit of patient care.

Professor Jones adds: ‘Growing an expert body of clinical academics deployed throughout the entire health service, who will lead and inspire others to follow in their footsteps – and will help drive improvements in patient care – is a hugely important step.

‘Dentists and dental care professionals are a big part of that and we hope to see more applications from these groups in the future.’

Time to apply

Applications to the NIHR in-practice fellowship are open until April. Visit www.nihr.ac.uk/ipf for more details.

For further information on all the training and career development awards available from the NIHR, visit www.nihr.ac.uk/training.