Inside Dentistry
June 2006
Volume 2, Issue 5

Medical College of Georgia School of Dentistry

Augusta, Georgia

George S. Schuster, DDS, MS, PhD
Ione and Arthur Merritt Professor

Chair, Department of Oral Biology and Maxillofacial Pathology
Associate Dean for Research

Question No. 1

Inside Dentistry (ID): The demographics of dental schools overall—in terms of faculty composition and the student population—are changing. What changes have you seen at your dental school in particular?

George S. Schuster (GS): The major changes over the life of the school relate to a shift in the numbers of female students, the presence of a more diverse population, and an increase in the numbers of older students, for whom dentistry is a second career.

There has been a significant increase in female students, from 1 or 2 per class to approximately 50% of the class. When I was a dental student, there were 2 women in the entire predoctoral program. The inclusion of more women has made it obvious that they have the necessary knowledge and skills, and in many ways are able to deal with patients better than their male colleagues.

Similarly, the numbers of minority students in our classes has increased. In our particular area, it was initially difficult to attract African American students, as opposed to their attending the historically African American schools. It took a concerted effort on our part to not only attract African American students to the Medical College of Georgia, but to help them feel at home.

The third “new” student group is composed of students who are older, and for whom dentistry is a second career. Their backgrounds range from accounting to nursing to engineering, etc. Generally these students are more serious and their presence brings a maturity to the entire class.

Question No. 2

ID: How has your dental school responded to these changes, and what have the reactions been from students, faculty, and administrators?

GS: Generally, the changes have been received favorably by all. However, it should be mentioned that ours is a relatively new school, which accepted its first class in 1969. Many of the faculty who were recruited during that time were new to dental education, so the old stereotypes of dentistry, dental students, and dental education were not present or not acceptable. It was an obvious commitment on the part of the school at the time, and accepted by the subsequent faculty. Change and diversity has really never been an issue.

Question No. 3

ID: There are many challenges and opportunities when it comes to oral health care. What do you see as the most urgent need, and how does your dental school differentiate itself in efforts to respond to those challenges and opportunities?

GS: The 2 major challenges, and therefore the 2 major opportunities, related to oral health care are providing for the needs of underserved populations and providing appropriate care for patients whose health may be compromised. There are large segments of the population who, for various reasons, do not have access to medical/dental care because it is unaffordable or they do not have access to care, especially preventive care. This includes dental care, which usually is not acutely life-threatening. Therefore, care is not sought out until it becomes an emergency, at which time the absolute minimum care is provided. It is my opinion, and this is my personal opinion, that health care in this country is in a state of disgrace. We are not providing adequate health care for all of our citizens, and the disparity is getting worse. Our school recognizes the problem and makes a special effort to recruit and accept students and specialty residents from underserved areas of the state who are committed to returning to those areas after graduation. We send students to outreach clinics and are trying to expand the numbers of such sites.

One innovative program is our flea market clinic. Our Associate Dean for Academic Affairs made arrangements to obtain a site at a local flea market. On weekends, students and 1 or 2 supervising faculty go to the site where they screen patients for oral health problems and refer them to local dentists or clinics for treatment. This has been well accepted by the patients, and the students find it an interesting and satisfying educational experience. They are performing a service and at the same time seeing the extent of dental needs in the population. They also see conditions that they would not see in the school clinics.

Because of modern medicine, patients now live longer and lead normal lives, even with systemic diseases. These are people who a few years ago would not have survived, or would not have needed comprehensive dental care. Because of their situation, and perhaps complex medications, they may have different treatment needs which the dental profession must address. We deal with this early in the education process with courses and seminars discussing the basis of the disease process, how it impacts on the patient’s oral health and treatment, and how the treatment, in turn, impacts on the patient’s health. This is then carried through to the clinic. We are fortunate in that we have our own basic science department, and many of the faculty members therein have dental degrees as well as PhDs. Therefore, we are able to focus on dental aspects within the students’ biomedical education.

Question No. 4

ID: Exciting and innovative research initiatives are taking place at dental schools nationwide. What is the most significant area of research taking place at your dental school?

GS: Our school is focusing on bioengineering/regenerative medicine and oral health and systemic diseases. In collaboration with Georgia Tech, we are studying biomaterials-tissue interactions to better understand how materials interact with the tissues with which they are in contact. This will lead to better materials for use not only in dental treatment but also such things as maxillofacial rehabilitation after trauma or diseases such as orofacial cancer. This is carried further with stem cell research, with the ultimate goal of rehabilitating patients with natural tissues and structures rather than artificial materials. It is a very exciting and fast-moving area.

In addition, diabetes and cardiovascular disease are prevalent in this part of the country, and are a special problem in the underserved populations. In collaboration with colleagues in the medical school we are examining interactions between oral and systemic diseases, and their mutual impact on patients’ health.

Question No. 5

ID: What endeavors have been most successful for you in terms of securing funding for this type of research, or other types of translation research?

GS: At this time, funding is problematic not only for our school but for research in general. We have had moderate success from federal sources. We have also been somewhat successful in securing industrial support; however, in the dental arena industry has little interest in supporting significant research. At the same time our university administration has been very generous in helping us develop and expand research programs so we can expand our research base in these areas. Realistically, we, like everyone else, seek support from every possible source, but there is no secret formula for success other than to work hard and keep trying.

Question No. 6

ID: Is there anything else that you would like readers to know about your dental school, or that you would like to comment on in general?

GS: The mission of our school is to provide first-rate practitioners for the state of Georgia. This requires good teaching, scholarship, and a dedication to serving our patients. I think we have been successful in balancing these components. We have been blessed with good support from organized dentistry in this state, which has made our job easier. The profession and dental education are faced with some serious challenges, especially of a financial nature. Our school is attempting to deal with these. I hope the profession, educators, and practitioners can come together to look at the problems nationally and develop comprehensive solutions. We are still too fragmented, which does neither us nor our patients a service.

About the Author
George S. Schuster, DDS, MS, PhD
Department of Oral Biology and Maxillofacial Pathology
Medical College of Georgia School of Dentistry
Augusta, Georgia

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