Nationwide shortage of dentists inspires Integrated Dental Holdings to hire recruitment consultant to source staff from abroad

The business

Integrated Dental Holdings (IDH) was launched in 1996 by third-generation dentist David Hudaly. The firm works in partnership with local primary care trusts and the Department of Health (DoH) to provide access to NHS and private dental care.

IDH has grown into the UK’s largest owner of NHS dental practices with more than 150 branches nationwide and a headcount of 2,000. In 2006, the public firm reverted to a private company with Legal & General as partner. IDH now has an annual turnover in the region of £80m.

The challenge

On the eve of 2003, the UK was facing a serious dentist shortage. Too few qualified graduates were coming through the system, and a DoH paper suggested a shortfall of approximately 1,000 dentists and growing. IDH alone was down by about 100 staff.

The solution

IDH knew it had to act fast to fill its staff gap. Recruitment consultant Jo Weir, who had previously worked with the company, was brought in full-time to hatch a plan to source experienced dentists from abroad.

The planning was meticulous. Weir and chief executive Hudaly travelled to a number of European countries, including Poland, Spain and Portugal, to research the market and observe clinical standards. “We were very impressed by the standards we encountered,” says Weir.

IDH was keen to recruit from countries with a surplus of dentists. “We did not want to be seen to ‘rob’ dentists from other countries,” she explains.

Within the year, Weir put in place recruitment agency partners in target countries and created a direct recruitment team in-house. “When I joined, the business was relatively unsophisticated, with an emphasis on growth,” she says.

She reorganised the business and put in place a team of three recruitment professionals, including a relocation manager promoted from within.

However, a major hurdle was looming: government foot-dragging meant IDH was still unsure if Polish dentists would be allowed to work in the UK. “We were trying to get answers from the government, but none came,” says Weir. “There was no formal mechanism in place. We were on our own and had to work our way through it.”

IDH worked very closely with the General Dental Council (GDC) to secure the government’s agreement and to put in place a formal recruitment mechanism, including translation of all paperwork – a necessarily robust process. “The biggest fear was that you would take someone on, only to find out later that they are not properly qualified as a dentist,” says Weir.

Eventually it all fell into place, and shortly after Poland’s accession to the EU on 1 May 2004, IDH launched an intensive recruitment drive, sourcing applicants from universities and the general medical community.

Again, the process had to be robust. Candidates were first pre-screened for language skills and certification, followed by a formal interview and presentation on IDH.

Candidates then sat formal exams on reading, writing, listening and spoken skills, devised by academics at the University of Bath, and accredited by the UK government. Lastly, candidates underwent clinical testing of their dentistry skills.

Successful candidates gathered their documents together before jetting off to the UK on a fully-paid relocation package, which included accommodation for one month.

IDH provides help and support along the way for all new foreign recruits. When dentists land in the UK, they are met at the airport by a relocation manager and transported to a hotel for a one-week clinical induction programme, including a crash course in NHS rules and regulations.

Any extra language skills are paid for by IDH or its agency partners as required. “If they are really struggling, we will put them on a programme,” says Weir.

The recruitment costs are considerable. Weir estimates that each new dentist costs anywhere between £5,000 and £10,000, plus relocation and additional language costs. With some 300 dentists hired to date, the total estimated cost of the recruitment programme is hovering between £1.5m and £3m.

But for IDH, the costs have been worth it. “Being able to recruit highly skilled and qualified dentists from abroad has been vital to the company’s success,” says Weir.

The outcome

Three years after a looming dental shortage, IDH is no longer crippled by lack of choice.

The reaction from clients has been overwhelmingly supportive. “We have had so much positive feedback from patients with regards to our European colleagues,” says Weir. “There is no question that this has enabled us to move the business forward and expand. We managed to fill all the gaps – and we’ve grown at the same time.”

Guide to filling in employee gaps in 3 steps

  1. Know the market – research and be clear there is a match in terms of skills and culture.
  2. Get a different perspective – when recruiting medical professionals, get a clinical opinion from a colleague with the expertise to understand the skill levels.
  3. Be prepared – you need plenty of time to understand exactly what is expected from a paperwork perspective. And be patient.

Employee perspective

Carmen Lopez joined IDH at the end of 2004. A dental graduate from Malaga, Spain, she spent a year working at a local clinic before joining IDH in York.

Lopez first heard about IDH through a friend, who was also considering working abroad, and after the initial telephone contact was asked in for a formal interview.

That interview process, she says, was very thorough – including an assessment of each applicant’s desire to work abroad. “They check if you really want to do it,” she says. “If someone was not really that bothered, then they did not go with them.”

Lopez says that once a job offer was made, everything fell into place. “It was so easy,” she says. “Everything was arranged, they help you so much. I just walked in and it was fine.”

The main draw for Lopez was the chance to improve her language skills. “My English was not bad, but when you are not used to speaking it, it is hard to get started,” she explains. “I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t get it out.”

The one drawback, she says, was the time it took to gather all her documents together – a hindrance she blames as much on herself as the process. “I forgot some of the documents and had to get things re-issued,” she admits. A process that should take about three months took Lopez closer to a year.

But even with that disruption, she maintains it was still a straightforward process. “They find you a place to live and they train you for the NHS,” she says. “Why not go for it?”

If I could do it again

“In an ideal world, all the stakeholders – including the UK and Polish governments, the UK Dental Association and private practices – would have understood exactly what was required of them and at what times,” says Jo Weir, HR director at IDH. Unfortunately, that was not the case. “It was like the blind leading the blind,” she says.

As a private outfit, Weir found negotiating the bureaucratic process challenging. “Trying to get answers from the government was difficult,” she says. “I sometimes felt like banging heads together.”

This was a frustration she would gladly avoid in future.

By Helen Kelly

Tell us about your project

If you have an HR project you want to tell us about, e-mail

Comments are closed.