Tom is a fourth-year dental student originally from Michigan who will be graduating in May 2012. He started a dental health blog called Oral Answers in January 2010 to help…

Dentist with face mask
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Life of a Dental Student – An Interview with Tom

Tom is a fourth-year dental student originally from Michigan who will be graduating in May 2012. He started a dental health blog called Oral Answers in January 2010 to help people learn how to improve their oral health. We wanted to learn more about how dental school trains students for treating patients, so Tom graciously shared his perspective with us.

When did you first decide to pursue dentistry?

I knew from a young age that a desk job just wouldn’t suit me. I wanted to be doing something, seeing firsthand the result of my efforts. I wanted to help people. During a career exploration class I took during my freshman year of college, dentistry stood out as a profession that met these criteria. The more I learned about dentistry, the more I was convinced that this was the path I should pursue.

In what ways are the different aspects of dental school preparing you for being a professional dentist?

I was fortunate to gain acceptance into an excellent dental school. Although many semesters were overwhelming, every class we took prepared us for life as a practicing dentist. The lectures I’ve attended have given me a strong foundation in anatomy, physiology, and other related sciences. We also are required to participate in a variety of labs which prepare us for the hands-on work that comes later in the clinic. Nearly every procedure we perform on an actual patient during our last 2 years of school has been preceded by hours and hours of work on plastic teeth, mannequins, and other simulation tools. When we finally do work on real patients, we have professors guiding and overseeing our work to help us refine our techniques.

What is your favorite procedure to perform, and why?

Restoring front teeth is one of my favorite procedures. During my first semester in clinic (in my third year of school), I saw a patient who had chipped one of her front teeth. She only had about half of her tooth remaining. I remember feeling nervous as I worked on restoring the tooth to what it used to look like. When I showed her what we had done in the mirror she smiled and happily stated that it looked just like her other teeth.

Although it was very difficult and took about 2 1/2 hours from start to finish, it was very rewarding to see how happy she was with her new tooth. I was just happy that she was patient with me! Luckily I’ve gotten faster as I’ve gotten more experience. When we do fillings and crowns on back teeth, the patient sometimes doesn’t even notice the difference, but working on the front teeth is very fulfilling because the patient can actually see the difference that we’ve made.

Is there a specific type of dentistry you’d like to focus on in the future?

I’ve always been interested in pursuing general dentistry. When I first got to dental school, I thought about specializing, but I realized that I enjoy doing a wide variety of procedures. Three areas that are of interest to me are working with children, dental implants, and cosmetic dentistry.

What was it like to practice on models before working on human patients?

Practicing on models provided much-needed experience that we would need once we entered the regular dental clinics at our school and started working on real patients. I think most dental students remember drilling into their very first plastic tooth. My first attempt wasn’t great, but with lots of practice I have become competent and successful. Working on plastic teeth before transitioning to real patients gave me so much more confidence. When I finally started working on real patients, it as much less overwhelming since I knew that I had already done the procedure successfully many times before.

Have you heard of the new dental robot? Does your dental school have anything similar, and do you think it helps?

I have heard of the dental robot. My very first thought as a dental student drowning in debt was that it was simply another expensive educational technology that would push us into more debt! I do think that it can help dental students, but I’m not sure if that extra help is worth the added cost. At my dental school, we really focused on treating our mannequins like a real patient. We were required to wear gloves, goggles, and face masks. We also couldn’t put them in unnatural positions, such as leaning them back too far. I think that mannequins play a role in helping students refine their technique, but learning to interact with patients is best accomplished with actual people. I think that it would be much better to learn human responses to dental work by actually working on real humans rather than a “simulation human.”

On the other hand, I did read that the robot gives students feedback on their performance. If this feedback relates to the quality of the dental work they provided, I think it might be valuable. If it related more to their patient management, I’m not sure how beneficial it would be. All of our dental work in pre-clinic is held to a certain “ideal” standard. Most teeth are very similar and require similar treatments, so this technique works. However, since many patients are different, they have different preferences, and I don’t think a one-size-fits-all approach should be applied to patient management. However, you’ll have to take my views with a grain of salt since I haven’t worked on a “dental robot” before.

How have your dental student peers helped you learn and understand the dental procedures and processes?

During our first and second years of dental school, we assisted the juniors and seniors in the clinic. I was able to learn a lot about dentistry from those upperclassmen during those sessions. As a fourth-year student, my classmates and I are able to work together by sharing difficult problems that we’ve encountered in the clinic and what techniques the various faculty-dentists have used to help us solve those problems. There’s often more than one way to do things, so it’s good to be able to converse with my classmates and learn what various techniques they are using to treat their patients. Also, many times we have a choice regarding which instructors we can work with on our patients. I try to work with many different dentists to so that I can get a feel for many different approaches.

What is one of the most common misconceptions people have about taking care of their teeth?

Well, I can’t stop at one!  Here are a few:

1 – Some people think that if a dental problem is not causing them pain, they don’t need to fix it. While it’s true that some diseases can get better on their own, a cavity is not one of them. Eventually the cavity will grow large enough that it gets to the nerve of the tooth and causes severe pain. When your dentist recommends getting a filling for a small cavity, it’s usually a good idea to stop the cavity dead in its tracks and restore your tooth back to health.

2 – Underestimating the power of a toothbrush and floss! Many people simply don’t want to floss every day. I’ve had patients ask me about prescription mouthwashes and various oral hygiene products that are heavily advertised when what they really need is a return to the basics – daily flossing and brushing.

3 – Not understanding the impact of their diet, specifically the amount of sugar they consume. In my experience, many people don’t realize that many of the foods that are advertised as “healthy” are not good for their teeth. For example, many people eat meal replacement bars for lunch and think that they don’t need to worry about their teeth because they ate a healthy nutrition bar. Many of those bars are loaded with sugar.

We really appreciate getting to learn more about how dental school prepares future dentists. Be sure to visit Tom’s Oral Answers blog to learn more about dental health!

Have you ever had dental work done at a dental school?

Let us know in the comments section!

4 Comments
  1. Yes I have and loved being a patient of so many wonderful young people.
    I go to Birmingham Al. UAB School of dentistry.
    I recommend this school 100%. It would be hard to go anywhere else.
    Thank you for reading my comment.

  2. Very interesting viewpoint from a future dentist. Good to see that there are students out there really taking the health profession seriously. I’ll be sure to check out his blog.

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