Oral Histories in Dentistry

Dr Barry Gibson, Reader in Medical Sociology, shares an update on his project’s progress.

Dental students undertake part of their training in real world dental surgeries across Derbyshire and Yorkshire. This involves treating patients from a diverse range of backgrounds. What we want to do in our project is to pilot and then embed within the dental curriculum the ability of students to undertake oral history from their patients. Oral history is the recording of unique experience, it captures voices and individuals are involved in the process of producing their own life histories. Our goal is to eventually develop an archive which can subsequently be used as a resource for research and teaching on inequalities and the social determinants of health in the School of Clinical Dentistry.

The Outreach programme in the School of Clinical Dentistry happens year on year and involves 4th and 5th year students going out to real world dental clinics to treat patients from a wide variety of backgrounds. The programme provides dental students with a wide variety of experience in treating patients from diverse background, often experiencing a huge range of inequalities. It is a core part of the dental programme at Sheffield and a key aspect of what marks us out as distinctive.

The goal of our programme is to enhance this aspect of our curriculum by using the funding to establish an archive of life story experience to provide new insights and perspectives of oral health and dentistry across South Yorkshire and beyond. The archive can subsequently be used to enhance our undergraduate teaching into health inequalities by getting first and second year students to access these recordings, reflect and discuss with their peers, and with staff, to broaden their understandings of the variation in and uniqueness of people’s everyday lives. The archive would also constitute a valuable resource for research in the School of Clinical Dentistry and might be used in our PGT project learning.

The other goal of this project is to seek to build a legacy for future students and researchers at the University of Sheffield by enabling the documentation of life histories in relation to oral health and dentistry. This is really important because dental students, like their medical counterparts, are typically recruited from social classes I and II and as a consequence come from a different social background than their patients. As a result we are hoping to find innovative ways to close the gap in the level of understanding that frequently exists between the students and their patients. By getting the funding from the University we will have the ability to try and reduce this disparity.

Fourth and fifth year students will benefit by being able to draw on oral history training and methods to reflect on inequalities in health, as well as improving their listening skills. The archive will subsequently be used to enhance future teaching in our curriculum by getting students in their first year to listen and reflect on the histories that have been archived and think about social inequalities. This will enable us to better integrate our teaching on social inequalities throughout our curriculum in ways that we cannot do presently.

In addition postgraduate taught students could also use the archive to both explore social inequalities and for their research projects. There is a dearth of qualitative data in relation to social inequalities in health and a need to increase our depth of understanding in relation to oral health related inequalities across the life course. Making a resource that is more timely and relevant for our students will be of enormous benefit. This valuable resource would become an increasingly valuable archive over time; providing insights for students and staff into the changing nature of inequalities in oral health in the region.

Patient benefit

Participating in an oral history interview enables patients to create a legacy, and gives them a voice. For example, the views of people who have taken part in oral history in Sheffield from palliative care were gathered for a study in 2013 (University of Sheffield) and the positive impact of oral history in a medical environment was clearly expressed. Patients explained they enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on life, from their perspective, in their own voice, without having to write. That being able to talk about themselves and express their identity with no time limit or medical agenda was a cathartic experience. Patients and family said that the oral history process was validating and dignified and the most important aspect of it was the creation of a voice recording as a lasting memory. Health care professionals told the study that they appreciate oral history, and they consider it a beneficial and important complement to clinical care.

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