Children’s champion

Dr Kirsten FitzGerald is a Consultant Paediatric Dental Surgeon at Children’s Health Ireland at Crumlin and the Dublin Dental University Hospital.

What led you to dentistry, and specifically to paediatric dentistry?

Initially I was interested in a career in medicine and surgery, but my experiences as a patient in an orthodontic setting led me towards dentistry. I then decided on specialty training in paediatric dentistry. I trained in Dallas in Texas and came back to Ireland in 2007, and my work now is mainly looking after the oral health needs of children and young people with significant special healthcare needs at Children’s Health Ireland at Crumlin. There is a great variety in the patient groups and the work that I do. I feel really lucky to work in that environment with super colleagues and a great team.
I’m also very fortunate and privileged to be able to teach the next generation of paediatric dentists, both in Crumlin and also at the Dublin Dental University Hospital.

What are your specialist/research interests?

I wish I had more time for research, but you can’t do everything, and I’m primarily a clinician and a teacher. I have a personal and professional interest in neurodiversity and in particular ADHD and autism, and have undertaken a formal qualification through University College Cork, an online autism studies course. I am very conscious that services for young people with autism across the board are left wanting here in Ireland. In particular, oral health is very much neglected by our health system, aside from the Trojan work of some individuals.

What are the particular challenges for paediatric dentistry in Ireland?

We’re really lucky in paediatric dentistry to be growing our workforce. Year on year, the number of specialists is increasing. I also think more families are aware of what we do and what we can offer. But very often those are not the most vulnerable families. We still have a lot of room to increase the profile of the specialty so that more vulnerable children and families can access our expertise. Many of the challenges for my tertiary care team relate to the lack of a universal, transparent, equitable, accessible primary and secondary care system to meet children’s needs. Unfortunately, the HSE dental service has suffered from under-investment over the last few decades. There are lots of wonderful individuals and they seem to me to be hamstrung by their circumstances and inadequately resourced to carry out the work that they are trained to do.

What should Government be doing to promote children’s oral health?

Regardless of our opinions on the oral health policy, it’s out there now and we have to focus on implementation. But to successfully implement its goals, all the stakeholders need to be at the table and equally respected. It’s my view that a leader with vision, support and an ability to transform the system will be required to achieve those goals. In Ireland, our political system is driven very much by the wants and demands of our population. Put simply, the wants and demands of our population for dental care, particularly for the vulnerable groups, is not there, so change needs to come not from the grassroots, but from the top down. We need strong leaders advising our Government to get them to commit to a transformative approach to oral health, just like they did with the smoking ban and the plastic bag tax.

How do you think the IDA can contribute?

I think the IDA can build on its tremendous work to date highlighting the importance of child oral health. The publication of its policy on children’s health in 2012 was very welcome, and it truly has stood the test of time and remains entirely relevant and appropriate. It’s also been great to see the number of publications in the Journal relating to paediatric dentistry, and the time given to the specialty at meetings and conferences.

You participated in HSE Leading Care Programme – what did that involve?

Leading Care was modelled on a similar programme in the UK, and funded by the HSE to develop leadership skills across the sector. There are three programmes, Leading Care 1, 2 and 3, and you can choose from these according to what will meet your needs. Having prepared myself pretty well from a clinical knowledge and skills perspective through my training in Dallas, I still felt that I had a lot to learn as a leader. I chose Leading Care 1 because of its personalisable nature, and on a professional and personal level, it has been one of the most formative and rewarding experiences of my life. There is a great focus on leadership style and qualities, and leadership as an ongoing lifelong practice and learning process. I really valued it, and would be happy to talk to anyone who’s interested in it.

Like all of us, Kirsten is missing friends during this latest lockdown, but a busy life of work and home schooling, and walking the family’s Great Dane puppy, means there’s not much time to relax. When she can, she enjoys reading and listening to podcasts, as she likes learning new things, and finding out about different aspects of history and culture.