GREENVILLE – East Carolina University’s dental school has taken the next step in its service mission by recently opening its pediatric dental clinic.
Fifty-two third-year dental students now have the opportunity to learn the challenges, rewards and technology associated with the care of tiny teeth – and the people who own them.
With the formal debut of pediatric services, the dental school’s programs include the predoctoral program, leading to a doctor of dental medicine degree, and postgraduate programs in advanced education in general dentistry, general practice residency and pediatric dentistry.
“After two and a half years or so, it’s nice to get this portion up and running and get the children in here for the first full day of work-ups and evaluation,” said Dr. Stuart D. Josell, chairman of pediatric dentistry and orthodontics at the school.
Josell and his assistant, Dr. Christopher Cotterill, spent the day observing how the students managed their young patients’ behaviors and their parents’ concerns.
“We’re looking for cues from the patients to see if they get uncomfortable – searching around their surroundings suspiciously, fidgeting in their chairs or red eyes holding back tears,” Cotterill said. “Right now, they look pretty comfortable with the process.”
Parents are allowed back to the treatment rooms with their children to watch their care. The parents are briefed ahead of the appointments about comments and behaviors that can reinforce or undermine the relationship being developed between caregivers and their young patients, Josell said.
“We understand that this is all strange to the children, with bright lights and strange devices,” Josell said. “We want to make the environment as friendly and non-threatening as possible.”
Students also need to be prepared for the unique experience of caring for children, he said.
“They’ve had dress rehearsals with mannequins and with adult denticians, learning and practicing procedures, and we give them knowledge about what to say and what not to say to children,” he said.
Before entering a clinical setting with their young patients, dental students spend time in educational settings and familiarize themselves with the types of scenarios they will face in the clinic. They also work with a behavioral psychologist to learn the kinds of facial expressions and body language that will inform them about their patients’ emotional condition.
It all worked for Melissa Bryant of Winterville and her daughter, Gracie, 8, who was in the clinic in December to get her first set of X-rays.
“They prepared me on how to let her know they would not hurt her, and they positioned me in a place in the treatment room where Gracie can always see me and be reassured,” Bryant said.
Third-year dental students Bruce Townsend and Megan Mazzarella took Gracie’s X-rays while her mother stood at the exam room doorway and watched, giving her daughter encouragement.
The students encountered a delicate young mouth not quite large enough to accommodate the device the child would have to bite down on to hold in place. Cotterill stepped in to show how to handle just such a problem. Working together, the X-rays were taken and Gracie was on her way to her next stage of care.
The students said they were happy to learn dentistry at the university.
“The faculty are awesome; I wouldn’t choose to learn anywhere else,” Mazzarella said. “I get to work with equipment that is all new and not available at some other dental schools.”
Townsend said he is being well-prepared for the real world experience of a pediatric dental practice. He would like to practice in Western North Carolina and understands the university’s mission of bringing medical and dental care to the state’s underserved population.
“I think it’s a great mission, and I’m ready for that,” Townsend said. “The world is really changing, and the technology we have will mean we’re never out of touch with the best possible tools for care. This wouldn’t have been possible even in the early 2000s.”
Dental school dean Greg Chadwick talked more about the university’s mission and how the school works to serve it.
“Right from the beginning, we’ve been trying to expand dental care to folks who do not have any,” he said.
Chadwick made clear that the program collaborates with rather than competes against private practice dentists to ensure as wide a blanket of coverage of dental care needs as possible.
“We tell people that if they are already seeing a dentist, they should continue to go there,” Chadwick said. “But we’re excited to have a unique opportunity here to provide care for children.”