Teaching future dentists to serve their community
By Steve Hendershot
UIC Alumni Magazine
Julie Arabia was trying to get her patient to talk. It wasn’t easy—it never is, with a 7-year-old in a dentist’s chair—but she tried, asking first about the girl’s favorite subject in school, then about her brothers and sisters.
Arabia received mostly quiet, one-word responses, and seemed resigned to start her examination when her patient suddenly blurted out, “I want to be a dentist!”
This was a breakthrough for Arabia who was, at the time, a fourth-year dental student serving an externship at Chicago’s Lawndale Christian Health Center as part of the College of Dentistry’s Community Based Education program.
She knew that the center’s dentists are exceptional at forging personal connections with their patients, even during short visits, and it was a trait she hoped to learn and emulate. So she forged ahead with this gift-wrapped opportunity, offering to answer questions about dentistry and saying, “We could use a dentist like you.”
The girl squirmed as Arabia administered an anesthetic, using an understanding tone when she said, “I know — this is the worst part.” It’s only then that she asked why her patient was drawn to the profession.
The girl didn’t hesitate: “It looks easy.”
Hmm. Arabia knew better, of course, but also sensed that she had been paid a high compliment.
Introduction to community health
Community Based Education is unique and so successful that it helped earn the College of Dentistry the 2012 William J. Gies Award for innovative clinical curriculum from the Washington, D.C.-based American Dental Education Association.
The award represented a decade’s work in developing and refining a clinical program that simultaneously provides top-notch dental education and dental care to underserved communities.
Community Based Education began in 2002 with a $1.5 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and has been a runaway success since its formal debut in 2005. Fourth-year externship students saw 12,500 community-clinic patients in 2010.
The Lawndale Christian Health Center is one of 17 of the program’s sites in Illinois, most in the Chicago area. There also are sites in Colorado where students can work with migrant populations, as well as a few international options.
The program experience centers on the Illinois sites, where students spend eight weeks rotating back and forth between campus and community — one week at a clinic, followed by one week on campus. Then the process repeats at a different site, until each student has completed a rotation at four or five locations. Students are generally able to select the sites where they perform rotations.
“The dental school environment is not a health system; it’s an education system,” said Caswell Evans, program head and associate dean for prevention and public health sciences.
“So it’s important for our students to understand there are any number of opportunities to practice in different contexts based on the social and cultural needs of the patient population.”
One of the program’s greatest benefits is that it exposes dental students to work environments other than private practice, he said.
A change in plans
At some of sites, students work under staff dentists who are alumni of both the college and the program — who had career-altering externships themselves.
Lynse Briney, who received her DDS in 2005 and a master’s in dentistry in 2012, was in the first class of externs.
She did an externship at the Children’s Clinic, a 95-year-old dental clinic in west-suburban Oak Park sponsored by the Oak Park River Forest Infant Welfare Society. She has worked there part-time since 2006, in addition to running a private practice, and last year she became the oral health director for the clinic.
The externship “gave me a taste, and I found it was a wonderful model and environment to practice in,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be involved.”
That experience isn’t uncommon, said Jill Baskin, a 1983 College of Dentistry graduate, who preceded Briney as oral care director at the Children’s Clinic and served as its externship site preceptor until 2013.
“Students may start the rotation convinced they want to treat children in private practice, but my hope and experience is that that changes,” she said. “It allows students to see how they are able to incorporate public health into what they see as their private-practice future.”
Baskin estimated that the Children’s Clinic provides 1,500 additional patient visits per year because of student participation; overall, the clinic sees about 6,000 patients annually.
“It makes a huge impact,” she says.
For Briney, the impact was career-changing, and she shares her knowledge with the dental students who rotate through the Children’s Clinic.
“You see their confidence grow,” she said. “They have the opportunity to work with dental assistants and run the team, and you see them get comfortable walking into a practice that right away is challenging for them.”
It was an externship at the Children’s Clinic that gave Justin Welke, a 2011 dentistry graduate, “a sense of accomplishment I hadn’t felt elsewhere,” he said.
Now a pediatric resident at UI Health, Welke said his experience at the clinic “is how I found my calling, because it opened my eyes to working with kids.
“When you step outside the four walls of the dental school building, you get a whole new perspective on the disparity that exists in a public-aid clinic,” he added. “And you see that for us to help out is huge — it adds a ton to the community.”
Grace Ahn, a 2007 dentistry grad, found her externship experience at the Lawndale health center so powerful that when she moved back to Chicago from California in January 2012, she visited the clinic to see her former mentor, externship director Edwin Mangram.
Soon, Ahn was the center’s newest staff dentist, overseeing the UIC students doing their rotations at LCHC.
Most of her conversations with them revolve around the technical aspects of dentistry, but every once in a while she offers career advice.
“That’s kind of cool, because I certainly remember my experience here as a student, and were it not for that positive experience, I would not be back here,” Ahn said.
“It’s contagious for us,” Arabia said. “The best thing you can take out of this experience is to emulate Dr. Ahn and Dr. Mangram, because they want to be here, and you can tell that they care about the kids and adults that we see.
“Showing up to work every day can be a chore, but here it seems like they feel it’s their calling — that this is what they’re supposed to do, and they’re very happy and fulfilled doing it.”