From cleanings to root canals to extractions in decidedly non-dental office environments, a core part of UCLA dental students’ education includes critical oral health care delivery to people in underserved communities.
Since its inception in 1964, the UCLA School of Dentistry’s students, residents and faculty help thousands of people annually in community clinics across southern California to fulfill its historical mission of improving the oral health of Los Angeles, California and beyond. Their efforts continue to be essential as an estimated 5.2 million people in California do not have dental insurance according to the National Association of Dental Plans.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the barriers to care that many Angelenos face. Clinicians and health care providers across the country have had to innovate how they provide and promote routine, preventative health care.
The Burbank-based non-profit, Kids’ Community Dental Clinic, or KCDC, got creative and in November hosted a drive-thru dental outreach. UCLA dental students (and a few faculty) volunteered their time at the event, coined Tacos and Toothbrushes. Volunteers served 105 adults and 39 children, who stayed in their cars while they received treatment. Another collaborator, the San Fernando Oddfellows, donated the nutritious food and the event space.
Over a three-hour timeframe, 21 dental students, under the supervision of UCLA Dentistry professors Dr. Lisa Nguyen and Dr. Kristen Moriguchi, helped to organize a line of cars and applied fluoride varnish to prevent dental disease in addition to handing out oral health kits, dental referral information and freshly made tacos.
“Tacos and Toothbrushes was the first in-person volunteering event I was able to participate in since starting dental school at UCLA,” said Brent Humeston, a first-year dental student, who added that participating in outreach like this was about more than just community service — it was personal.
“For a large portion of my life I did not have dental insurance and my access to dental care was very limited,” Humeston said. “I loved being able to provide fluoride varnish to those in need because I know the importance of preventative care. I am full of joy knowing that my small role volunteering at this event possibly prevented oral discomfort or possibly even future tooth loss.”
KCDC’s longstanding mission is to improve the oral health of children from low-income families in Burbank and other areas of need. The pediatric dentistry clinic is one of 13 affiliated sites that the UCLA School of Dentistry’s Community-Based Clinical Education Program collaborates with.
Established in 2018, the community-based clinical education program places fourth-year dental students in community dental clinics, such as federally qualified health centers and private practices that focus on people living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four is $52,400 a year. In exchange for providing treatment, trainees receive valuable clinical experience. All dental students, regardless of their year in school, are invited to attend outreach events. Events like Tacos and Toothbrushes allow first-year students to assist their colleagues and gain valuable experiences interacting with different patient populations despite not entering the clinic until later on in their training.
“We are thankful for KCDC’s team for demonstrating what it is to be a true oral health care professional and community servant,” said Dr. Bill Piskorowski, associate dean of UCLA Dentistry’s Community-Based Clinical Education program. “Through this service learning affiliation, we have strengthened our students’ ethic of caring and confidence in providing much needed care for an underserved, pediatric populations.”
The clinical education program has been a resounding success, in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, dentists provided more than 13,000 procedures at their affiliated sites with the majority of the locations in Southern California. Students perform a wide array of services, including patient education, cleanings, fillings, crowns and extractions.
“I am so grateful we are able to continue building collaborations to find more ways to safely serve the community,” said Dr. Lisa Nguyen, associate director of the Community-Based Clinical Education program and a faculty member who helped coordinate UCLA’s participation in the outreach event. “This event also allowed our new first-year dental students to connect in-person with each other and students in other years to ask for advice as school progresses.”
For many first-year dental students, the event was the first time that they saw their dental school colleagues. Since the start of the school year, all first-year courses have taken place remotely.
“The start of this school year hasn’t been ideal for our first-year dental students. Friendships start during orientation and in those first few months,” said Dr. Paul Krebsbach, dean of the UCLA School of Dentistry. “Connecting and collaborating with other students is a vital part of dental school. We’re doing everything we can to supplement what our first-year students are missing out on, but it’s hard to truly replicate in-person instruction. Events like Tacos and Toothbrushes can help fill the void.”
Dale Gorman, director of the KCDC said, “the Kids’ Community Dental Clinic wants to impact as many people as possible with preventive care and access to our free and low-cost dental clinic. Teams of dentists, hygienists, dental students, hygiene students, dental assistants and pre-dental student volunteers, including UCLA volunteers, help us provide treatment and tools to the families who need it the most.”