Ecorys Interview with Laura Hannon, General Manager of the BDA Benevolent Fund| Social Policy
This spring, Ecorys researcher Samuel Greet spoke with Laura Hannon from the British Dental Association Benevolent Fund (BDABF) about research that Ecorys conducted into the financial and wider wellbeing issues being experienced by UK dental students, particularly in light of COVID-19.
Hi Laura. Thanks so much for agreeing to speak to me today. I guess the first question is why you decided to research this topic?
"You’re welcome, Sam. I’m glad to be able to share some thoughts. We know there is a lot of research out there about dentists and increasing information about their levels of wellbeing and stress, but we realised there was a gap about what the issues dental students faced. We felt that we were the ideal organisation to look into this further. We’ve had an increasing number of applications from dental students over the last three years and this helped us decide to look into this, so we could improve our understanding of their needs.
We also felt this research would help us learn more about how typical the scenarios we were seeing in applicants compared to those from the wider UK dental student population. It was also important that we conducted this research as it gave us an opportunity to engage with dental schools and understand if the students had heard about the charity and our support and if not, then to promote it and ensure more students would be aware of the help available."
That’s really interesting Laura. It sounds like it was a combination of looking to get further evidence around trends you were seeing on a smaller scale in your received applications and to encourage more students who might share those problems to apply for your support and services.
Now this research is complete, and the report has been published, how would you reflect on your overall experience?
"So in terms of being involved in the study, being actively involved in research was a new development for us, but it went well. We were clear about what we wanted to get out of it and the expertise of your colleagues at Ecorys gave us the tools to ensure its success through gathering and analysing the data.
Throughout the research we wanted to ensure that the survey asked the right questions in the best way. So, we spoke to previous applicants as well as contacts at universities - support staff and lecturers to give us their thoughts about what the issues were. After it launched, we regularly promoted the survey and the weekly update from Ecorys on the numbers of completed responses and where they were coming from really helped to see what universities were engaging and sharing the survey. This helped us target possible respondents so we could speak to as good a range of them as possible."
From our perspective it was great to work with you and to help fill a vital evidence gap on the support needs of the wider dental student population. What would you say was the most important finding that the study produced?
"That’s a difficult question as the research provided a range of important results. However, if I had to choose one, it would be that 74% of respondents said that financial issues had impacted them at some point throughout their course, because our core work is supporting people with their finances due to hardship or unforeseen circumstances. This statistic gave us a concrete outline of the extent of the difficulties people were facing and the potential number of applicants who could access our support. It also allowed us to start to learn more about what causes this issue, such as whether it is just individual circumstances or the wider system, which is hopefully something we can work on addressing into the future."
From our perspective, the research also highlighted other gaps in the current provision of support for dental student’s financial and wider wellbeing. Are there any other support gaps worth noting?
"Yes, 90% of students stated they had suffered from stress or burnout. This is a staggering figure and I don’t think any individual or organisation quite understood the extent of the issues that dental students were facing.
We also found out that only 33% of students stated that they had accessed any support with their wellbeing, so clearly there is a number of students who need support but that actually go on to ask for it, which is something we want to change. This may be because students don’t know where to get help from, or because they felt embarrassed. We want to let students know about where they can go to but also to reduce the stigma in talking about wellbeing and mental health issues in the context of dentistry and dental schools."
So, you mentioned that you were shocked at the sheer scale of students experiencing stress or burnout during their programmes. Were there any other outcomes from this research that you weren’t expecting or that surprised you?
"As well as those significant figures of stressed students that we discussed, I would say I was also taken aback by 40% of students stating that financial and wellbeing issues are linked to them thinking about withdrawing their degree. Those who reported financial issues were likely to cite this as a main factor in why they might consider withdrawing, with particular concerns from students in fourth/fifth years, international students and those taking dentistry as a second degree (linked to the lack of available funding for them to finance the continuation of their programmes).
It seems such a shame that so many students who are already over halfway or nearly finished their course were thinking of stopping, when this is something that is preventable with the right financial support and intervention."
The range of financial and wider wellbeing pressures on UK dental students is clearly leading to a range of negative outcomes and it seems like the scale of these in the wider population might come as a surprise to those involved in student dentistry. With these range of issues within the research in mind, do you have any ideas on what the BDA Benevolent Fund might do with these key findings? Has it changed any of your practices at all?
"We are hoping that we can take action on the disparity between those with financial issues versus those accessing support for this. In total, 51% of respondents suggested that they need financial support but despite facing these money problems, only 24% had accessed any help. This suggests a wider need for financial assistance so we know that there are gaps.
The research has also confirmed that there are some students that are atypical i.e., they have caring responsibilities, are mature or doing a second degree or are from a low-income background or that they don’t have parental support. Students in these situations are more likely to need outside support from charities such as ours. We saw this in the applications we were getting but we weren’t necessarily highlighting this in our marketing activities, so we have used the key findings to inform changes in our approach to this issue. So, we’ve started to make it clearer about who, why and how we help including emphasising our wellness support."
Do you think there are any lessons from this research that the wider network of stakeholders around UK dental students such as dental schools, universities, student unions, charities etc. could take forward in their practices?
"Definitely, especially in regard to universities and their dental schools. We’re using the research findings to try to get access to universities to ask if they can help us promote our organisation and the financial and wellbeing services we offer. We’d also like to talk to universities to see if we can work together on more preventative support – budget planning and money and wellbeing management tips or lectures and webinars as well as better signposting for support alongside this."
Thanks so much for your time, Laura, it’s great to hear how much impact our research is having. Thanks again for all your work and support on this project – it was a real pleasure to work with you. We look forward to soon hearing more about the fantastic work you are all doing!
If you would like to know more about the BDA Benevolent Fund, you can get in touch with Laura at [email protected].
To hear more about the research methods and about Ecorys, please reach out to Sam at [email protected].