Access to dental care is important for everyone—low-income families, children with special needs, even pets. In an effort to reach these unique and diverse populations in need of dental care, allied dental students in programs nationwide participate in various community dental programs. These programs are aimed at reaching members of the community who do not have access to regular dental care because of prohibitive costs, lack of knowledge, or geographic location, as well as providing a distinct and useful learning experience for students.
Students Learning to Care for a Diverse Population
The University of Maryland division of dental hygiene places such importance on community-based involvement that it is part of their curriculum. During the summer before and the fall of their senior year, dental hygiene students each provide 90 hours of community service to underserved populations in Washington, DC and the state of Maryland. Students provide care at locations including community health centers, military facilities, hospital-based dental clinics, and juvenile justice centers. Students often work in pairs along with a mentor, who is frequently a graduate of the UM dental hygiene program, to provide preventive and educational services.
The students keep journals of their experiences that are used during the semester to develop written and oral presentations they present to their classmates. Since most students are able to go to only two or three different sites, these presentations are a way to share and compare their experiences with one another. This past year the community service learning program students delivered a total of 445 prophylaxis services and 413 fluoride treatments and sealants, as well as exposing and developing 547 radiographs.
According to program director Prof. Jackie Fried, “Service-learning experiences enrich the students in many ways. They not only learn the value of rendering care while expanding their clinical experience, but the students are exposed to cultures different from their own. This helps broaden their perspectives on health care, community health, and communication. Some students even exceed the required 90 hours of service and go on to offer additional services at their chosen location.”
Providing Oral Health Care and Education for Children
Dental hygiene (DH) students at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale have always learned about the public health system while in school, but not all of them have gotten to participate in real-time community partnerships. But recently, thanks to funding from various sources including the Illinois Department of Public Health, the dental hygiene program has been able to incorporate clinical and public health experiences into its curriculum. Now, DH students participate in the Dental Sealant Grant Program and Project Mouthguard, programs that provide oral health care services and education to low-income children in the state.
Through the Dental Sealant Grant Program, dental hygiene students deliver pit and fissure sealants and oral health education to elementary school students using portable equipment. Without this program, many of these children would not receive dental care. Likewise, DH students who participate in Project Mouthguard work with volunteer dentists from the community to provide mouth guards for children ages 7-17 who are involved in sports where the risk is high for orofacial injuries. Dental hygiene students get practice taking and pouring alginate impressions, and students and faculty from the Dental Technology Program gain more experience pouring and making the mouth guards. Over 100 children have received mouth guards since the program began in 2001. Currently, these programs are made possible through a local church, but plans for Project Mouthguard to partner with the local park district are underway.
Many allied dental programs send students to work in one-day programs in their communities. Dental hygiene students at Pennsylvania College of Technology, for example, participated in the 3rd Annual Sealant Saturday event sponsored by the Pennsylvania Dental Hygienists’ Association. In this six-hour event that helped kickoff “Children’s’ Dental Health Month,” 30 dental hygiene students, working with 25 dental hygienists and three dentists, conducted 136 examinations and placed 603 sealants. Both children and parents who received dental care were encouraged to participate in hands-on educational activities and received information and oral hygiene products to take home.
In one of the most innovative community programs, Professor Sharon Miller has developed a program for preteen and adolescent youth with disabilities at Erie Community College (ECC) School of Dental Hygiene in Williamsville, NY. In the program, special education students take a field trip to ECC to receive preventive dental hygiene services and participate in seven hands-on learning centers. Dental hygiene students work in pairs to treat the visiting students. Once this is completed, the dental hygiene students become instructors for the day, and the visiting students become dental hygienists for the day. They place sealants, scale typodont teeth, and take and process x-rays with the help of the DH students. One special needs student commented, “I had fun at ECC because I got to clean fake teeth. My mom was happy when you cleaned my teeth. I’m cleaning my teeth everyday.” This program gives the dental hygiene students a wonderful opportunity to get experience working with special needs patients and help teach them the importance of good oral health in a fun, interactive environment.
Reaching Out Around the Globe
Communities in the U.S. in need of dental care are fortunate that there are many allied dental programs that volunteer their time and services. For some communities around the globe, there are few dental or allied dental programs, and therefore very few or no opportunities to receive much needed oral health care.
University of North Carolina dental hygiene faculty members Profs. Vickie Overman and Charlotte Peterson decided to do something about it. In the summer of 2004, they traveled to the Republic of Moldova, formerly part of Romania, to serve as consultants to dental faculty in determining the feasibility of establishing a program to educate allied dental health professionals. Professors Overman and Peterson presented information on dental hygiene curriculum development and the role of the dental hygienist in providing care. They also offered initiatives to improve the oral health of the population including implementing fluoride varnish and sealant programs, putting fluoride in the water, and introducing standard infection control measures. They will return to Moldova in the fall of 2005 to initiate a fluoride varnish program in rural areas of the country.
Extending Oral Health to a Whole New Set of “Patients”
Good oral hygiene is important for everyone, including your pet! Dental hygiene Profs. Sharon Barbieri and Beatriz Hicks of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio established a one-day course highlighting oral health for companion animals in 1998. The course is designed for veterinary technician students at Palo Alto Community College, students at UTHSCSA’s lab animal resources program, and dental hygiene students. Students spend half the day learning about eruption patterns, periodontal disease progression, nutrition, dental prophylaxis, use of an ultrasonic scaler, and product review. The second part of the course uses cats and dogs from the Lab Animal Research facility as patients. They are anesthetized by veterinarians and prepared for treatment. A demonstration is given showing assembly of the ultrasonic unit, introduction of hand instruments, and use of the ultrasonic scaler. Each student completes a dental arch. Under the supervision of the vets, students also learn to monitor the animals’ vital signs and reactions to sedation. The program began in 1998 and is a wonderful collaborative opportunity for students even as it maintains the oral health of the animals.
Involvement in community dental hygiene programs has become a staple of many allied dental school curricula. In participating in these programs, allied dental students gain not only an opportunity to practice their clinical skills, but valuable experience in treated and relating to individuals from many different backgrounds. These programs have become an integral part of the efforts to provide dental care for all.