Roots of achievement
At first, third-year dental student Emily Whittington was a little confused. Her patient, an elderly gentleman, complained of a stinging sensation in his mouth.
“I didn’t see any signs of bacteria or allergens, but he was definitely feeling discomfort,” Whittington said. “I just wanted to help him as quickly as I could.”
She called on her faculty supervisors, who rushed in from oral medicine and prosthodontics, for assistance. After reviewing her patient’s medical history and symptoms again, and prudently listening to her patient, Whittington determined that it was his type 2 diabetes that was contributing to his pain.
“After we made some adjustments to his dentures, the patient was very pleased. His pain was gone and he could eat and even talk better,” Whittington said. “I learned a lot about how disease can affect every aspect of a patient’s well-being. And, it was an amazing feeling to see my patient smile again.”
Whittington’s experience is just one example of hundreds of distinct cases she and her fellow dental students have had and will have in clinics at the Dental School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. The state-of-the-art curriculum, rigorous and abundant training opportunities the Health Science Center offers have duly granted the Dental School a reputation as one of the top in the nation.
Each year, 94 students are accepted into the four-year dental education program at the Health Science Center. William W. Dodge, D.D.S., professor and vice dean for patient care in the Dental School, said students focus on biomedical and preclinical science during their first and second years. Students’ course loads consist of dental anatomy, histology, microbiology, pharmacology and gross anatomy.
“I’m fortunate to be able to work with world-renowned educators who love to teach. My professors are leading-edge, and our Dental School is known for being on the forefront of evidence-based dentistry.”
– Matthew Gillespie is a fourth-year dental student at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio.
“During their third year, they practice dentistry on manikins in our simulation labs,” Dr. Dodge said. “Students don’t begin treating patients under faculty supervision until they’ve practiced, practiced, practiced, and demonstrated that they have the necessary knowledge and skills.”
By the second semester of year two, students begin to see patients on a limited basis. By the third year, students spend about 70 percent of their time in the clinics providing comprehensive care to a caseload of about 25 patients. Fourth-year students spend 80 percent of their time providing care to approximately 45 patients who make up their clinical practice. Both third- and fourth-year students are assigned to group practices where they treat their patients under the close supervision of faculty from the departments of General Dentistry, Prosthodontics and Restorative Dentistry. Some students’ initial experiences in areas such as endodontics and oral surgery take place in specialty clinics.
More than 50,000 patient visits occur each year. An additional 52,000 visits are handled by residents who practice in the specialty clinics including periodontics, oral surgery, endodontics, orthodontics, prosthodontics, radiology and pediatric dentistry.
Student rotations are also available through the school’s Mobile Dental Van and at community clinics located in underserved regions of the city as well as in Laredo, Harlingen and other South Texas sites.
Dr. Dodge notes that because all care provided by students is supervised by faculty members, procedures tend to take longer than usual. “A procedure that may normally take 45 minutes to complete in a private dental office, may take up to two hours in our clinics. But that’s because our students stop to consult with their faculty supervisors and to ensure that everything meets the standard of care before they send their patients home.”
Dr. Dodge added that the lower fees in the student clinics are intended to compensate patients for their time.
“Fees for care provided by dental students are discounted up to two-thirds in the student clinics and up to one-third in the resident clinics as compared to what a private practice might charge,” Dr. Dodge said. “Students gain top-notch training while patients receive optimum care and savings. It’s a win-win situation for both students and patients.”
Each clinic is equipped with the latest technology and equipment. Dr. Dodge said the Dental School maintains approximately $12 million in treatment equipment and training technology at the San Antonio campus alone. At each station, students can log onto their laptops to review patients’ medical histories and records and can share these with clinic faculty and staff via the electronic medical records system. Students can also quickly reference their textbooks online if they have questions about a specific case.
Whittington said she was particularly excited about learning to work with images produced by Cone Beam Computed Tomography. In 2004, the Dental School was the first institution in the country to obtain a J. Morita USA Inc. 3-D Accuitomo Cone Beam CT imaging system. Today, the Dental School is the only school in the nation to have four of these types of machines on site.
“This technology is remarkable because it creates three-dimensional views of a patient’s jaw or entire head, for example,” she said. “It’s extremely efficient in detecting all kinds of cystic, tumoral or inflammatory bony lesions, and in accurately determining the height and width of the alveolar bone of a potential dental implant patient.”
Students interested in specializing in oral surgery can gain experience in the school’s Oral Surgery Suite. Dr. Dodge said the Dental School is one of only a handful of Dental Schools in the nation to have a suite of its kind. On any given day, the Oral Surgery Suite, nestled on the second floor of the Dental School, is staffed by three faculty supervisors, five residents, a clinic nurse supervisor and an anesthesiologist. Here, students observe some of the most complex oral surgery cases in San Antonio.
Shannon L. Nunnelly, the clinic nurse supervisor, said the collaboration she witnesses between students, faculty and residents in all departments helps make each case successful.
“When a student identifies a patient who requires surgery, the student walks the patient over to our clinic so we can immediately plan for the procedure,” Nunnelly said. “It takes great teamwork and I see it here every day.”
Dr. Dodge noted one of the biggest advantages of dental student training at the UT Health Science Center.
“We provide everything our students need to receive the best training right here in the Dental School,” Dr. Dodge said. “We prepare them so they can practice independently as soon as they graduate.”
More than 2,700 students have graduated from the Dental School since the school opened its doors in 1971. Dr. Dodge said between 30 and 40 percent each year choose to continue advanced and specialty training. About 90 percent remain in Texas to practice.
“This year, we’re proud to say that one of our graduates, Dr. Matt Roberts of Crockett, Texas, was elected president of the Texas Dental Association,” Dr. Dodge said. “Most of the leadership posts in the San Antonio District Dental Society are also held by our graduates. It’s great to see that our alumni are not only skilled clinicians, but are also engaged in issues that affect the health and well-being of our community.”
Matt Roberts, D.D.S., a 1981 graduate of the Dental School, agrees. “Leading an organization requires listening, reasoning, compromise when needed and quick decision making. The Health Science Center’s Dental School is a training ground for any future leadership position. I expanded and refined these skills daily during my four years in San Antonio.”
For more information about enrolling in the Dental School, call (210) 567- 2667 or send an e-mail to DSProspect@uthscsa.edu.
To become a patient in the UT Health Science Center Dental Clinic, call (210) 567-3217 or visit www.dentalscreening.com.
The Dental School is celebrating its 40th anniversary. For more information about the May 7 Anniversary Gala, call (210) 567-6536.