Alberta dental student program continues to make a difference
The following article appeared in the November/Decemeber 2023 edition of the ADA’ Connection magazine:
Imagine sitting down to lunch with your dental patients following a hygiene appointment … or dancing a jig after completing a root canal?
That’s just what happened earlier this fall in Medicine Hat during a mobile clinic aimed to provide free dental care to the Métis community.
It’s the third time the University of Alberta and Métis Nation of Alberta (MNA) collaborated as part of the Access For All dental health program after successful community-based clinics earlier in Cold Lake and Lac La Biche.
Through the program, third and fourth year dental and hygiene students take the lead on planning logistics for a mobile clinic including fundraising and acquiring dental equipment, working with the MNA (which coordinates patient appointments), recruiting preceptors to supervise the students’ work and carrying out dental procedures.
During the five-day clinic, hygiene care, X-rays, extractions, fillings, and root canal procedures were available to patients at no cost.
It was an eye-opening experience for Alon Rabinovich, a U of A dental student from St. Albert, who joined 12 others to offer their dentistry expertise at the clinic.
“Whether it be sitting at the table together and having a chat or teaching us how to jig, it was nice to have more of a conversation with patients,” says Rabinovich.
While the team started at 8:30 a.m. and often went well past 5 p.m., it wasn’t all work and no play. The MNA provided traditional Métis meals and activities next to the treatment centre where patients and the dental team could mingle throughout the day and evening.
Some treatment plans were more detailed but still fit within the realm and scope of the program.
“We were really careful with not biting off more than we could chew,” notes Rabinovich, adding some patients had scheduled appointments while others walked in for service. “If we initiated a treatment, we didn’t want to leave the patient without continuation of care. Anything we did start, we would finish.”
The experience was invaluable to the students, both from a practical and patient perspective.
“It was more personal than just a set of teeth in front of me,” says Rabinvoich. “It’s taught me a lot about the patient-dentist interaction. When we work as practitioners in the future, we will work towards having a more meaningful and deep connection with our patients, which only has positive implications for a treatment.”
The feeling, it seems, was mutual for the patients.
“One of the biggest impacts is that on this trip we had a patient come to us who was a patient on one of our previous trips,” explains Yiying Huang, the current Chair of Access for All and a senior student leader tasked with organizing the mobile clinic.
“[The patient] actually drove about three hours to see us in Medicine Hat and even longer when we were in Cold Lake. To be able to have that connection is incredible. She had a good experience last time, so she was able to trust this clinic from the get-go, even though she hadn’t met the students from this time.”
“Most of the time we are treating patients on a two-hour basis and they don’t come back and we don’t get to follow up with them, so it was really nice to see that.”
Learning to be a dental team
Dental and hygiene students also had a chance to learn more about each other’s roles and collaborate as they managed seven treatment stations, says Huang.
“At the school of dentistry, we don’t get to work very closely with the dental hygiene students,” she explains, noting interdisciplinary partnerships are key in private practice.
“On these trips, we’re really able to work together as a dental team. We would pop in if patients needed an exam and if we saw a patient who needed a sealant or they could use some hygiene, we would just be like, ‘Hey, can you pop on over and give my patient a check?’
“A lot of dental hygiene students assisted us on the trip so, we were able to build connections that way. We’ve made some really great friendships.”
The gift of confidence
Preceptor Dr. Jess Alcazar was pleased to spend a week volunteering as a supervisor for the complimentary dental care for the Métis, a community that does not have the same access to non-insured health benefits, including dental, provided to First Nations or Inuit through government programming.
Dr. Alcazar has practiced for ten years and she believes it’s valuable for students to have a taste of real life outside of the classroom where interruptions are commonplace as the dental teams manage patients and treatments throughout the day.
“I was telling the students this is literally what private practice is like…. You need to learn to stop mid-thought or procedure. I was really impressed how the students worked with each other. I think it’s important that students get perspectives that are outside of school.”
The Sherwood Park dentist loves to share her knowledge with students and finds it particularly rewarding when their confidence begins to take off following an “a-ha” moment.
Huang confirms how important this is for students. She says, “A lot of feedback that we’ve gotten from students is how much they are able to be confident in themselves and in their own treatment planning and clinical skills.
A call for dentists
Despite the success and growth of the program, there remains a need for practicing dentists who can act, like Dr. Alcazar, participate as preceptors.
“We can’t go on these trips without preceptors so it’s definitely a crucial part of Access for All Dentistry,” says Huang. “If there are any dentists who might be interested or have a week that they could spare in the schedules, we would really love if anybody reaches out.
Dentists who are interested in being involved in Access for All Dentistry are encouraged to visit a4ad.ca for more information.
— Lorena Franchuk