By Jane Schmucker
No matter how gifted the dental professor, how thorough the syllabus, or how well-equipped the university laboratories, many of the most important lessons for dental students get taught off-campus these days.
Samir Merchant, DDS, who graduated from The Ohio State University’s College of Dentistry in 2013, calls his alma mater’s gritty placement program, which requires students to spend 50 days in a clinic working primarily with Medicaid patients, “a tremendous gift.”
Even before he started dental school, Dr. Merchant was involved in the university’s OHIO Project, which stands for Oral Health Improvement through Outreach. He worked as an assistant in a clinic in which fourth-year dental students would rotate in and out, and he recalls learning a great deal from them as well as latching on to what has become his mantra: “Everybody needs a dentist.”
Now, at Dr. Merchant’s clinics in central Ohio’s Lancaster and Heath, about 60 percent of his patients are covered by Medicaid. And Dr. Merchant, who only a few years ago was an Ohio State student, is now an adjunct faculty member, helping to supervise fourth-year students in the OHIO Project.
His goals extend beyond helping students feel comfortable doing everything from oral surgery to crowns. He hopes to share a bit of philanthropic philosophy, too.
“I can only help one patient at a time,” he says. But if he can assist students in working with those whose bills will be paid by Medicaid, far more oral health issues among some of the poorest Ohioans might be remedied than he could ever do himself.
Most dental schools have programs that place students in off-campus settings, often working with low-income folks. The American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation has required schools to offer such programs in recent years.
The intent, according to its standards: “Service learning experiences and/or community-based learning experiences are essential to the development of a culturally competent oral health care workforce. The interaction and treatment of diverse populations in a community-based clinical environment adds a special dimension to the clinical learning experience and engenders a life-long appreciation for the value of community service.”
Ohio State’s program is unique partly because participation in the OHIO Project is a graduation requirement, not just an option. Those 50 days spent in the 23 affiliated clinics are part of a class that provides six credit hours for seniors.
Because at least 40 of those days must be in OHIO Project clinics (some students spend 10 days elsewhere), and because Ohio State’s 110 graduates a year make it one of the larger dental schools, the OHIO Project has a significant impact. It counts some 331,000 procedures performed since the program started in 2002.
The program’s magnitude is also its most significant challenge to director Canise Y. Bean, DMD, MPH.
Scheduling so many students for so many days – and trying to give everyone their top choices from a list of a couple dozen sites in all corners of the state – can be quite an undertaking.
Then, too, the staff tries to accommodate wishes once students get to a clinic.
“For every site we have, there are students who absolutely adore it, and there are also students who would prefer not to be there,” Dr. Bean says.
So when students plead for a few more days at a clinic where they say they’re learning lots and fitting in, Ohio State administrators often try to make it happen. But Dr. Bean says she insists that students spend time in a variety of clinics.
Children, for instance, often strike dental students as some of the scariest patients. They’re little, they don’t always communicate well, and their behavior can be erratic. So, it’s important to Dr. Bean that all students spend some days in the university’s mobile dental clinic, a high-tech recreational vehicle that travels to Columbus elementary schools.
“That can increase the confidence of students in treating kids,” she says.
Likewise, students who have rotated through clinics ranging from veterans’ clinics to huge urban hospitals to rural outposts often feel more sure of their abilities to treat a variety of patients, according to Dr. Bean.
“It’s really such a joy,” she says of the results she sees.
Meanwhile, Dr. Merchant is hoping the university dedicates more resources to the OHIO Project.
A pilot program was started last year in one of his private dental offices for hygiene students. He’d like to see it expand to many more sites with the idea that it, too, is creating a positive impact and affects both hygiene students and the patients they serve.
Author: Contributing writer Jane Schmucker is a veteran journalist who has covered health and business topics. Now freelancing, she reported and edited for more than 22 years at The Blade (Toledo, Ohio). She has also worked on the rewrite desk for USA Today in Arlington, VA.
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