University of Illinois at Chicago
For release: Immediately, June 8, 2005
UIC College of Dentistry Students Go Out To Community To Help The Underserved
The University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry has started a new program involving extramural rotations—patient care outside the College in community clinics—for its fourth-year dental students.
Funded by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which is dedicated to improving health and healthcare for Americans, the program operates under a $1.5 million grant. “The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded only a select group of 11 schools of dentistry to enhance a program of service learning for the students, and service provision for underserved communities,” explained Dr. Caswell A. Evans, the college’s associate dean for prevention and public health sciences.
Working with Dr. Evans, who directs RWJF grant-related activities at the College, are Dr. Linda Kaste, Director of Pre-Doctoral Public Health, who is the grant principal investigator, and Dr. Aljernon Bolden, director of extramural programs, who determined the sites and made the arrangements for the extramural rotations.
One of the College’s goals is to “try to develop a program which would enhance the community-based experience for students,” Evans said.
Seniors graduating in May were the first students to participate. UIC partnered with clinics representing a wide range of experiences for students, including rural, special needs, and urban situations. “Our goal was not to solely teach dentistry, but to expose students to different practice settings and to barriers that prevent oral health care for many,” Dr. Evans said. “We wanted them to function as professionals and to be part of a team in serving society’s underserved.”
Students worked at a variety of community facilities throughout Illinois, including the Lawndale Christian Health Center on Chicago’s West Side, as well as Crusader Clinic in Rockford, IL; Illinois Masonic Medical Center; the Infant Welfare Society of Chicago; the Lake County Health Department; Northwest Community Healthcare in Arlington Heights; the Oak Park-River Forest (OPRF) Infant Welfare Society; the Spang Center for Oral Health; the Milestone Clinic in Rockford; and Community Health Partnership.
At several of the sites, alumni from the college also were present. Alumni working in these clinics have made the decision to devote part, or in some cases all, of their practice time to serving the underserved.
UIC administrators believe learning how to be culturally sensitive and to serve the underserved is an important aspect of a student’s education.
“To be a socially relevant health service provider is one of our objectives for our students,” Dr. Evans said. “That entails a knowledge of social, societal, and health issues that affect us as a local and national community so that when our graduates encounter issues concerning lack of access to care among some groups, they don’t respond, ‘my patients don’t have access difficulties, so what’s the problem?’ They will understand that there is an obligation to be concerned about the general social welfare, independent of who their private patients are.”
According to Dr. Evans, the rotations are expected to do just that. He believes they “provide a profound opportunity for students to really become part of the fabric of a community-based health center, and part of that community,” he said. “These are intended to be in-depth, intense exposures-not cameo roles where the students provide a service and pack up to leave at the end of the day.
“Students will get an understanding of the complexity of our world. Patients come in all colors, with different languages and ethnic backgrounds, but the common denominator is the health services they need. Our graduates need to have the skills to be able to interact with them,” Dr. Evans said.
One of the UIC College of Dentistry’s goals is to be ranked among the top five dental schools in the United States. The start of this new program is a big push in that direction, Dr. Evans believes.
“I don’t think a school can get there without graduating socially aware and competent dentists who understand the nuances of our society and health policies,” Dr. Evans explained. “The rotations will result in expanding the curriculum, more emphasis on prevention, and issues relevant to the health of the public. Strengthening the curriculum in this way can only help the college. The university always has prided itself on being connected and responsive to the community, so these rotations help the College fulfill the university’s expectations. I think we’ll even be a model and example for other colleges and universities to follow.”
The fourth-year dental students who took part in the pilot of this program recently returned from their rotations. They were eager to share their experiences with third-year dental students who, next year, will be participating in this same program. They recently gave a presentation at the College in which each student related his or her own personal experience with the extramural rotations. An overwhelming majority of the feedback was positive.
Most of the students described the dental clinics they worked in as “fast paced.” One student explained that she saw a new patient every 15 minutes as patients waited on the stairs of the building all day long, with hopes of being seen by a dentist that day. The clinic was in a rural community and gave the student a good lesson on the reality of rural dental health care. “I learned that rural need is just as big as urban need,” the student said. “It really opened my eyes to what’s really out there.”
Other students had similar experiences. “There aren’t a lot of places for these people to go,” one student said of the patients she saw, noting that providing dental care to such patients “takes a lot of patience and compassion.” Another student noted that the rotations helped change perspectives on the underserved. “I learned that low-income people are not always rough-and-tumble,” the student said.
The participating students supported continuance of the program.
Meanwhile, UIC is searching for future partners for this endeavor. “This is all about the College establishing a rich and wide array of community-based partnerships,” said Dr. Evans, “so we’re eager to work with additional community-based organizations whose leaders see a situation in which the college and students can work with them, especially where the students can participate in the direct provision of care.
“This is a unique opportunity, and we’re privileged to be a part of it,” Dr. Evans concluded.
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