The British Dental Association (BDA) has warned that action is needed to minimise wide-ranging impacts of Covid-19 on the future of education, training and the sustainability of the NHS workforce.
In an open letter to Health Secretary Jeane Freeman and Deputy First Minister John Swinney, the union said the pandemic had limited the clinical experience of many dental undergraduates, and raised concerns over how many would be able to graduate in 2021.
It said teaching disruption may also translate into fewer qualified dentists entering the NHS workforce in years to come - exasserbating the already “huge backlog” facing Scotland’s dental services.
The BDA also warned that the Scottish Government risked saddling undergraduates with “unmanageable debt” if they are forced to take an additional year of study.
The average dentistry student can expect to leave university owing around £34,000.
It stressed that any changes will have an impact not just on this year’s graduating class, but on the shape and size of the 2021 intake too.
The BDA called on the Scottish Government to support any undergraduates who are required to take additional periods of study through an emergency bursary.
It also said ministers should offer appropriate support for dental schools covering tuition fees, as well as teaching grants and clinical placement funding.
The union also said support for the network of NHS trainers who take on trainees following graduation was also needed.
David McColl, Chair of the BDA's Scottish Dental Practice Committee, said: "What dental students across Scotland really need now is certainty.
“The Scottish Government must offer a safety net, which protects the next generation, supports our universities, and secures the future of patient care.
"Should these students be unable to graduate in 2021 it will have a serious impact on both the workforce and patients’ ability to access NHS services.
"The pipeline of health professionals should not be left at risk,” he added.
“We need to see a plan that guarantees graduates aren’t saddled with unmanageable debt, keeps schools viable, and ensures Scotland has the dentists it needs."