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Dentistry students provide professional care for low-income patients

Postle Hall is home to the College of Dentistry. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

For 50 days of his last semester in college, Anthony Clark, a fourth-year in dentistry, traveled an hour west of Ohio State’s main campus to provide dental care at a small clinic in Troy, Ohio.

Clark made these trips as a part of the Oral Health Improvement through Outreach (OHIO) Project, created 16 years ago to provide students with practical experience while bringing professional dental care to populations with the most need.

“It started with a grant, but it was recognized across the country that more access to care was a huge problem,” said Rachel Whisler, the project’s coordinator. “The dental schools have a wealth of resources, and if we could put dental students in community sites, it would help with providing more care to more people.”

Over the years, the OHIO Project has become a required course for all students in the College of Dentistry. The program’s director, Canise Bean, said doing so has transformed the way students are taught.

“Traditionally, students have been educated solely within the school or the college of dentistry. But now it has been documented and supported within the literature that students become much more well-rounded and much more capable of understanding the issues of communities in which they might be serving, by way of these experiences they get in the communities,” Bean said.

While the students are gaining valuable experience, they also are meeting a need in the community.

“There are few providers that will accept Medicaid, but a lot of people need their provider to accept that kind of insurance because that’s what they have,” Whisler said. “It is good for students to recognize this gap in the system and not only process ways to fix it, but actually become a part of the solution.”

One thing dental students are sheltered from at Ohio State is the impact cost of procedures can have on patients, Clark said.  

“It’s a lot more of an organic experience in the OHIO Project when you tell a patient they need a crown, root canal, and partial denture, and their first question after that is not,

‘Will it hurt?’ or anything like that,” he said, “but ‘How much does it cost? What will my insurance cover?’”

There are about 25 clinics in Ohio that partner with the College of Dentistry, all of which accept patients with Medicare. When Ohio State sends students to these clinics, they are able to provide care for more patients in need.

Working with a population of people who students might not have had previous experience with can help students decide what career path they will take.

“Many of the students who experienced the OHIO project when they were in school are now in settings whether it be a community clinic, a federally qualified health center or in private practice where they want to give back and really see if they can contribute to the development of oral health professionals. And they become OHIO project partner sites for us,” Bean said.

Clark said after being part of the OHIO project he plans to accept many agency patients.

“My goal is to open up a practice that can sustain and do well on its own, and then open up a non-profit practice as well to provide my services not only to those who are in a better financial situation, but also to work in an area that doesn’t always get a dentist’s attention,” he said.

Clark said he now sees the importance of practicing dentistry not just to make money, but also to make sure all members of a community are taken care of. It is not only helpful for those who have a hard time receiving care, but it is also a gratifying experience for himself.

“I had a patient hug me three times yesterday for doing a filling on her instead of doing a crown,” he said. “Just being able to have that freedom to do that and help her in that way both financially as well as in her oral health is just awesome.”

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