DOZENS of dental graduates in Scotland could be forced to work abroad unless a crisis in the number of training places is solved by this summer, industry representatives have warned.
The British Dental Association (BDA) is worried that more than one-third of the 192 students due to graduate from Scotland's three dental schools this June may be left without a vocational training placement, which is compulsory for any young dentist seeking to work in the NHS.
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As a result, many graduates - who cost taxpayers £150,000 each to train - could abandon the UK to work overseas, in places such as Australia or New Zealand.
Last year, when there were 143 dental graduates, 48 were left without placements in dental practices at the end of the application period, which begins in March.
The shortage of places last year meant that dozens of students completed their vocational training (VT) year in hospitals or community outreach centres.
Graduates traditionally finish their year's VT in approved dental practices, under the tutelage of an experienced practitioner.
The Scottish Government yesterday announced an increase in the grant given to trainers, from £13,164 to a maximum of £15,000, and Public Health Minister Michael Matheson said this would strengthen training.
Dr David Felix, the dean of postgraduate dental education in Scotland, also said that additional education resources would be provided for training practices.
However, the BDA fears that the current problem could be exacerbated after a number of trainers wrote to Dr Felix threatening to quit over controversial changes to their pensions.
Pat Kilpatrick, the BDA's Scottish director, said: "Some trainers have threatened to pull out. They've found out that if the trainee doesn't gross a certain amount in the practice then the trainer's superannuation is adversely affected. Effectively it costs them money on their NHS pension if that trainee doesn't gross around £70,000 [of treatments] a year.
"The Chief Dental Officer has tried to reassure us it's getting sorted out, but as yet we don't have any confirmation of that."
The Herald has received a copy of the letter sent to Dr Felix by the West of Scotland trainers group, which claims that "only 31 applications by trainers has been received by NES [NHS Education Scotland]".
The letter states: "It was also indicated that this year trainers would be appointed without the need to interview … Experienced trainers who have been devoted to training and are proud of the role they have had in mentoring new graduates over many years now feel so undervalued that they are considering their positions."
Ms Kilpatrick said BDA Scotland shared the dentists' concerns.
She said: "If you're under so much pressure that you begin to relax your own quality standards, then that is a worry for the BDA."
An NES spokeswoman said: "Trainer recruitment is ongoing in Scotland. We have always provided a sufficient number of posts which at least matches the output of the dental schools in Scotland."
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "It is premature to suggest there won't be sufficient VT places for dental graduates late this summer. Work to identify sufficient numbers of places for 2014 is progressing, as is usual for this time of year."
Extra funding of £350,000, available from August, will allow for the increase in grants given to dentists who employee trainees.
Mr Matheson said: "By providing over £350,000 to increase the trainer grant we are strengthening VT so new graduates become confident skilled clinicians in general dental practice."
Dr Felix said the NES greatly valued trainers' contribution, and that details of the additional resources would "follow shortly".