The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHSCH) Dental Branch offers a one-semester elective officially named "Safety Net Dental Clinic." Students work one Saturday morning a month at the San Jose Clinic, where the patients are usually children and always have one thing in common: no health insurance, not even Medicaid.
Nineteen students enrolled when the course was first offered in 2008, and their obligation has long since ended. Yet almost all of them continue to volunteer at San Jose, and it's a phenomenon that has repeated itself every semester since. Dental hygiene students asked to join the effort last fall.
The course is nicknamed "Dr. Simmons' Elective" after Associate Professor Douglas M. Simmons, the course director. Clinical Assistant Professor Regina L. Lewis, a pediatric specialist, has also become a regular volunteer at the clinic, and Dr. Dan A. Bentley and Dr. Janet Grobe-Hood occasionally help out too.
Earlier this year, San Jose Clinic recognized "Dr. Simmons' Elective" as "volunteer of the month," and Dr. Simmons accepted the honor with the students there that day. With his own 35-year history of community volunteerism, Dr. Simmons isn't surprised people want to show up on a Saturday morning to provide free dental care for children. "I think it's great, but this is what I do," he said, grinning.
The students do "lots of exams, cleanings, small fillings, and stainless steel crowns," said Ms. Erika Johnson, a fourth-year dental student. "The faculty is very one-on-one here."
Dental hygiene students take X-rays, do phophys, and give oral hygiene instructions. Two recent volunteers, Ms. Hannah K. Medrano and Ms. Lindsay Us, said they always learn something in clinical settings off the Dental Branch campus. "Like today, we're using a different system for X-rays, and if I hadn't come here I wouldn't have had practice with it," said Ms. Us. "At the school, the equipment is all digital, but here it's not."
In collaboration with Christus Foundation for Healthcare, the San Jose Clinic recently moved to a spacious new facility. The number of dental chairs has more than doubled to 13, dramatically increasing the number of patients who can be seen at one time.
Mr. Nick Cobb, a third-year dental student, said the clinic offers an outstanding learning opportunity. It can be difficult to get pediatric patients (ages 5-18) to the Dental Branch during the week, but that's not a problem on Saturday mornings at San Jose.
His classmate, Mr. Eric Braunlin, was one of the first students in "Dr. Simmons' Elective" and is an officer in the UTHSCH chapter of the American Student Dental Association (ASDA), whose members supported early efforts to keep the San Jose experience alive. "Our class wanted to help out and get involved," he said. "I like that we're treating patients in need, and that we're making a difference. We definitely see a lot more pediatric patients here than at school."
He expressed special thanks to the faculty volunteers, saying, "We couldn't do this without them and the San Jose Clinic."
In 2009, the UTHSCH team treated 300 patients at the clinic, but everyone involved - students, faculty, and San Jose staff - would like to see that number increase in the future. Prof. Lewis and Dr. Simmons are working to get clinical credit for student volunteers outside of the course. It's an effort bolstered by a $5,000 grant from the Texas Dental Association that purchased a computer to document student service at the clinic and, eventually, access electronic patient records from UTHSCH.
The San Jose Clinic's volunteer dental director, Dr. Frank J. Collura, said having the dental students in the clinic is beneficial for everyone. "I'm pleased that the Dental Branch has external clinical programs whereby the students not only aid the community, but also get exposed to a more realistic view of dental practice," he said. "I'm especially pleased that after a lapse of almost three decades, San Jose Clinic is again a site for this educational activity. Both patients and dental students will benefit greatly from this experience." The San Jose Clinic is one of the oldest charity clinics in the country, said Executive Director Stacie Cokinos. "Our mission is to provide health care and education, in a dignified manner, to people who don't have access. We've followed the same model since the 1920s: Use volunteer professionals to provide care to people without insurance."
The fact that students show up to volunteer, without credit, on Saturday mornings is another blessing in a series of blessings, she said. "This project is simply extraordinary. Extraordinary."