SALT LAKE CITY — A trip to the dentist could lead to a lot more than getting your teeth cleaned these days. Dentists' ability to diagnose dangerous health problems has advanced. Students at the University of Utah's new School of Dentistry are on the front lines of oral health care as they learn about their future profession.
"You're changing the way people act and the way people think, the way other people respond to them. It's a life-changing experience to change somebody's smile," said Latecia Muse, a second-year student at the U.'s School of Dentistry.
Muse is talking about some of the patients she has already been seeing at a biweekly low-cost clinic offered at the U.
Dr. Mark Durham is a professor at the School of Dentistry and often oversees the students as they conduct their exams and offer advice to patients like Joe. He'd like to improve his smile after years of smoking. Joe tells Durham and a dental student that he "smoked for years and years and years and here I am 64." However, he did quit a few years back and Durham tells Joe and his student dentist that that will give him a better chance at improved oral health and a better smile.
It's not easy to turn back the clock on years of smoking, drinking or drug abuse. Durham shows future dentists how to make connections between oral health and the rest of the body.
"Being able to assess different patients' susceptibility is really going to help prevent more disease than just fixing it once it happens," second-year dental student Clint Wire said.
Durham suggests that students "connect the body systems to the mouth to see there are things that are happening when we neglect our teeth."
We have to educate the students that there is something deeper going on, that it's more than just brushing the teeth and flossing regularly. That's because of these disorders and addictions.
–Dr. Mark Durham, professor at the School of Dentistry
In fact, neglect often follows an inability to pay for dental care and addictions that go untreated. Students are learning how to spot signs of substance abuse early in a patient's treatment.
"It's growing and it's strange and it's hard to understand and patients don't understand how fast their teeth are just going to rot out," said Durham.
Wire said part of his education is "trying to figure out ways to talk about substance abuse with people without coming off as rude or as judging them." Actually, today's dentists can offer hope to patients with a history of abusing and ignoring their teeth.
Muse said she is learning that "there's always something you can do for these people, and that's what is so invigorating about being a dentist is that you have the power to help these people."
Sometimes a reminder to brush and floss regularly will do. But today's dental students are encouraged to do a closer examination of their patients.
"We have to educate the students that there is something deeper going on, that it's more than just brushing the teeth and flossing regularly. That's because of these disorders and addictions," Durham said.
Perhaps the best time to talk about the price of addiction is when dental patients are young. Dr. Glen Hanson is the interim dean of the University of Utah School of Dentistry.
"Most of our substance abuse problems start in young people, adolescents," he said.
Trends reported by the American Dental Association show an increase in children visiting the dentist. And that's encouraging to dental students at the U. where affordable care for kids is also part of the curriculum. Durham believes the program will prepare the next generation of dentists for a bright future.
"I'm very optimistic about it. We're seeing changes every single day, and installing a university like this in the community is going to do significant things for Utah which haven't been done before."
Wire is ready to embrace his future as a dentist.
"I'm just excited to be able to treat everything that I see and help everyone no matter where they are that's in pain or that needs care," Wire said.
He might just get a chance to work with even more patients in his final years of dental school. The U. hopes to expand the number of days the school offers low-cost dental care and possibly add more clinics for kids.