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ECU Clinic Trains Students to Treat Kids’ Teeth

Posted on Monday, January 13, 2014


GREENVILLE, N.C. — The School of Dental Medicine at East Carolina University has taken the next step in its service mission by opening its pediatric dental clinic at Ledyard Ross Hall.

Surrounded by state-of-the-art technology, 52 third-year dental students now will have the opportunity to learn the challenges, rewards and technological tools associated with the care of tiny teeth — and the people who own them.

With the formal debut of pediatric services, the dental school's active programs include the pre-doctoral program, leading to a doctor of dental medicine degree (DMD), and postgraduate programs in advanced education in general dentistry (AEGD), general practice residency, and now, pediatric dentistry.

Stuart D. Josell, DMD, chairman of pediatric dentistry and orthodontics at the school, recalled his work in preparing the facility for opening day, which was Dec. 16

"I started out living in a trailer on the campus when the ground was broken but the building wasn't here," Josell said. "After two and a half years or so, it's nice to get this portion up and running and get the children in here for the first full day of work-ups and evaluation."

The faculty chief and his assistant, Dr. Christopher Cotterill, spent the day observing how the students managed their young patients' behaviors and their parents' concerns.

"We're looking for cues from the patients to see if they get uncomfortable — searching around their surroundings suspiciously, fidgeting in their chairs or red eyes holding back tears," he said. "Right now, they look pretty comfortable with the process."

Parents are allowed back to the treatment rooms with their children to watch their care. The parents are briefed ahead of the appointments about comments and behaviors that either can reinforce or undermine the positive relationships being developed between caregivers and their young patients, Josell said.

"We understand that this is all strange to the children, with bright lights and strange devices," Josell said. "We want to make the environment as friendly and non-threatening as possible."

The students also need to be prepared for the unique experience of caring for children, he said.

"They've had dress rehearsals with mannequins and with adult denticians, learning and practicing procedures, and we give them knowledge about what to say and what not to say to children," he said.

Before entering a clinical setting with their young patients, students spend time in educational settings and familiarize themselves with the types of scenarios they will face in the clinic. They even work with a behavioral psychologist to get keyed in for the kinds of facial expressions and body language that will inform them about their patients' emotional condition.

It all worked for Melissa Bryant of Winterville and her daughter, Gracie, 8, who was in the clinic that Monday to get her first set of X-rays.

"They prepared me on how to let her know they would not hurt her, and they positioned me in a place in the treatment room where Gracie can always see me and be reassured," Bryant said.

Third-year dental students Bruce Townsend and Megan Mazzarella took on the task of getting Gracie's X-rays taken while her mom stood at the exam room doorway and watched, giving her daughter encouragement.

The students encountered a delicate young mouth not quite large enough to accommodate the device the child would have to bite down on to hold in place. Cotterill stepped in to show how to handle just such a problem. Working together, the task was successfully accomplished and Gracie was on her way to her next stage of care.

The students said they were happy to learn dentistry at ECU.

"The faculty are awesome; I wouldn't choose to learn anywhere else," Mazzarella said. "I get to work with equipment that is all new and not available at some other dental schools."

Townsend said he is being well-prepared for the real world experience of a pediatric dental practice. He would like to practice in the western portion of the state and understands the university's mission of bringing medical and dental care to the state's underserved population.

"I think it's a great mission, and I'm ready for that," Townsend said. "The world is really changing, and the technology we have will mean we're never out of touch with the best possible tools for care. This wouldn't have been possible even in the early 2000s."

Dental school dean Greg Chadwick talked more about the university's mission and how the school works to serve it.

"Right from the beginning, we've been trying to expand dental care to folks who do not have any," he said.

Chadwick was clear that the program does not compete with private practice dentists, but seeks collaboration to ensure as wide a blanket of coverage for people's dental care needs as possible.

"We tell people that if they are already seeing a dentist, they should continue to go there," Chadwick said. "But we're excited to have a unique opportunity here to provide care for children and help our students see that specialized kind of care in a dental school environment and, hopefully, continue to provide it in private practice or other types of care centers when they leave here."

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