Dental students prepare for practice, serve rural residents

Dental students prepare for practice, serve rural residents

Sept. 8, 2014

By Kathryn Kennedy
ECU News Services

Most people dread root canals and tooth extractions, crowns and dental fillings. But fourth-year students in East Carolina University’s School of Dental Medicine have been looking forward to those procedures for three years.

“I was the kid that loved to go to the dentist,” said Brooke Burnette, a Chocowinity native and member of ECU’s first class of dental students. “I know that’s pretty rare. I wanted a career where I could give back…and see people smile again.”

Burnette and the other members of her class left Greenville this fall to engage in applied learning at ECU dental community service learning centers built and staffed in rural, underserved areas across the state.

ECU Dental Clinics

  • Ahoskie – Open. Call (252) 332-1904.
  • Elizabeth City – Open. Call (252) 331-7225.
  • Lillington – Open. Call (910) 814-4191.
  • Sylva – Open. Call (828) 586-1200.
  • Spruce Pine – Under Construction.
  • Davidson County – Under Construction.
  • Robeson County – Under Construction.
  • Brunswick County – Announced.

ECU is pioneering this new model for training dental students. Each will complete eight-week rotations at three different clinics as part of their final year of study.

“This is more than just drilling and filling,” said Dr. Greg Chadwick, dean of the School of Dental Medicine. “They’re developing an understanding about people across the state – why they might not have access to care, why they might not hold oral health as a high priority.”

Rebecca Ferguson was only in Sylva for three weeks before she noticed the difference between practicing dental medicine in Greenville and at the mountain clinic. “It’s a totally different patient population,” the Waynesville native said. “There’s definitely a demand and a need (for dental care in western North Carolina).”

Other students agreed it’s not uncommon to see patients at the clinics come in with pain, rather than for preventive care.

There are also day-to-day operational differences for the students. During their third year in ECU’s Ross Hall – where the dental school is housed – the average day consisted of a mix of coursework and care for about two patients. Now their days are spent treating twice that many patients, on average.

“I had to figure out how to be more efficient,” Burnette said of her rotation at the Ahoskie clinic.

She said the students also have to make sure they’re asking all the right questions. Many patients are on other medications that could cause issues during the course of dental care, and may be unaware of the potential for adverse drug reactions.

“You really don’t know anything about your patients,” said Jorge Arriagada, who completed his first rotation in Lillington. “You have to review everything.”

ECU faculty dentists working alongside the students at each location support their transition to the clinic.

“You get one-on-one teaching for all aspects of dentistry,” said student Jeremy Hyder, a Hickory native on rotation in Elizabeth City. “It’s a unique experience that I don’t think a lot of other dental students – if any – get to have.”

“Every site is going to be different,” Chadwick said. “The faculty will concentrate on different things, the patients will be different.”

Additionally, the students are all acting as informal ambassadors from ECU and its dental school. Their presence helps attract patients to the clinics. Arriagada said he and his classmates are often stopped as they run errands in their scrubs. People are curious about who they are and why they’ve come to their community, he said.

“Eventually, we’ll be on roller skates going from patient to patient,” Arriagada predicted, laughing. “We’re offering affordable care and that’s going to be a huge benefit to these communities.”

The students said they’re benefiting, too.

“I was expecting to enjoy it, but it definitely lived up to (my expectations) and surpassed them,” Hyder said. “It’s what life will be like after graduation.”

“Even after the first week, you could see the students’ excitement,” Chadwick said. “I hope that every class continues to have an even better experience than the class before them.”