“Preparedness for Practice” in Mass Casualty Emergencies and Disasters: An Exploratory Qualitative Study of New Zealand Final Year Undergraduate Dental Students’ Perceptions

Hadzi-Longinovic, Stefan
Holloway, Ailsa
Tong, Darryl
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Master of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

There is a growing recognition of the need to strengthen the global emergency healthcare workforce. This is due to the increasing trend in disaster occurrences that interlinked forces such as unplanned urbanisation, and climate change. This priority is particularly evident in countries such as Aotearoa New Zealand with its seismic risk profile and growing exposure to extreme weather events.

Despite New Zealand’s need for an expanded surge capabilities in public health emergencies and disasters, there has been limited research on strategies to augment the country’s emergency healthcare workforce. This includes the potential engagement of dental health professionals. Recognising that dentists may be required to meet healthcare surge capacity needs in the future disasters in New Zealand, this study examined final-year undergraduate dental students’ perceptions of their preparedness for practice in mass casualty disasters and public health emergencies.

This study adopted an exploratory qualitative, descriptive methodology with its associated pragmatist paradigm, and used online audio-only, semi-structured interviews, as the data gathering method. Online interviews using the Zoom platform took place between October 2021 and May 2022, with twelve New Zealand final-year undergraduate dental students from Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Otago in Dunedin. Thematic analysis and coding of the interview transcripts using NVivo 12 computer software enabled the identification of five themes related to preparedness for practice in mass casualty emergencies and disasters: 1) perceived academic and technical competencies to respond in emergencies and disasters, 2) self-perception of protective preparedness capabilities and adaptive skills in emergency and disaster responses, 3) professional attitudes and ethical positioning in relation to emergencies and disasters, 4) awareness of community needs in emergencies and disasters, and 5) awareness of climate change and extreme events.

Research findings indicated that the students had a limited and uneven understanding of New Zealand’s disaster profile. They also showed that although students perceived they had foundational understandings of the key clinical responses needed in emergencies, as emerging dental healthcare professionals, the interviewees observed their disaster response capabilities to be limited. Unexpectedly, the findings revealed students’ perceptions of additional disaster-related capabilities not typically associated with dentists’ response in mass casualty events, but that did resonate with the broader DMPH domains.

Study results have potential implications for reconceptualizing dental healthcare professional engagement in disasters and emergencies. They signal scope for dentists to have expanded roles that go beyond the recognised clinically oriented skillset typically associated with dentists’ disaster responses. Findings also highlight the potential to increase disaster-related content during the undergraduate education process without major curriculum changes. Recognising the exploratory nature of this study, results indicate the need for more representative research on dental and medical student perceptions about future emergencies and disasters, including their potential roles.

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