Dr. Richard Archer works with fourth-year dental student Amy Moody (left) and third-year dental student Rubana Masood. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Who wants to be a dentist?
As it turns out, many people do.
A strong stream of applicants are knocking on the doors at the VCU School of Dentistry, Virginia’s only dental school.
Last year, there were 2,106 applications for 95 open spots in the entering class. Put another way: For every 22 people who applied, one got in.
And many more applicants are women.
“We’ve had a tremendous increase in the number of women,” says Dr. Richard Archer, assistant dean of clinical dental education.
In fact, the 2015 class at the school of dentistry is the first class that is predominantly female, 55 percent women to 45 percent men.
Women also make up the majority of the class of 2016.
A high demand exists for dentists, Archer says, although in Virginia, how those dentists are distributed is a problem.
“Richmond has plenty of dentists, but [if] you go to towns like Danville or Lynchburg or Martinsville, or the western part of the state, they have a real need for dentists there,” he says.
Archer, who sits on the dental school’s admissions committee, says many are drawn to dentistry for its service aspects — they want to help others.
That’s what motivated Jaime Woodall, a third-year dental student from Bassett in Henry County, an economically challenged area of the state.
She plans to return home after she completes her four-year climb through dental school.
“I grew up in a community where everyone knows everyone, and I think it is important to bring back your [skills] to an underserved area,” Woodall says.
She was enrolled in VCU’s School of the Arts when she developed an interest in dentistry. Once she completed her art degree, Woodall started taking the prerequisites for the School of Dentistry.
Woodall says she was encouraged to mix art with dentistry after talking with Baxter Perkinson, one of the school’s best-known graduates. Perkinson took up painting after he already had begun building a multi-office dental practice in the Richmond area.
Woodall says that while art training could prove helpful in cosmetic dentistry, her part of the state is most in need of general dentistry services.
Kandice L. Klepper is another dental student who became interested in the profession while she was doing something else. Klepper, originally from York, Pennsylvania, earned a biochemistry undergraduate degree and did research work in VCU’s department of anesthesiology for three years before entering the dental program.
She says she loved the research, but needed more interaction with people.
“It’s amazing to work with people on a daily basis, and that’s one of the wonderful things about dentistry. You’re able to build these relationships with your patients and to have that continuity of care,” Klepper says.
During their first two years, dental students spend a lot of time in the classroom and working on mannequins in the dental school’s simulation lab.
Archer says teachers at the School of Dentistry want to be sure students are technically competent before they move from mannequins to people.
“We don’t want to use patients as practice,” Archer says.
Students start working on real patients in their third and fourth years. Becca Almond, a fourth-year dental student from Roanoke, says one way in which students practice is by working on each other.
“We check ourselves out on our classmates. So, we do our first cleanings on each other. We also do our first anesthesia on each other — with supervision of course!” Almond says, laughing.
As seniors, dentistry students do external rotations at community satellite clinics across Virginia.
Archer says community dentists, serving as adjunct VCU faculty, calibrate the students’ work and, when needed, offer assistance or counsel.
“It’s phenomenal. I really learned a lot and I’m so much more confident in myself after having that experience,” Klepper says. “We see about five to seven patients a day. The patients pay either no fee or only a minimal fee.”
Dental students also participate in Mission of Mercy (MOM) projects in coordination with the Virginia Dental Association and industry, corporate and community sponsors.
In Richmond, the School of Dentistry operates a student dentistry program open to the public.
“Anyone in the community is eligible for dental care. There are still fees for service, but they are significantly lower than private practice dentists,” Archer says. “So, it’s people who might not normally be able to get dental services.”
One patient of the student dentistry program says she pays $26 for a dental exam, $46 for a cleaning and $11 for fluoride treatment. Costs of dental services vary widely with outside practitioners.
The student practice averages 3,500 patients per month and 470 new patients per month, Archer says.
Deidre Smith, a third-year student from Earlysville, this year began to see her own dental patients, some of whom drive a long way for their appointments.
“I have a patient who drives from Maryland, drives five hours,” Smith says. “She heard about it and decided to give it a shot because of the cost, and she will continue to come.”
Gail Burnett of Glen Allen, a retired insurance adjustor, doesn’t travel nearly as far. But she, too, likes the student dentistry program.
“It’s easy to get an appointment, the students are pleasant. They’re very conscientious. They’re very well prepared, and the supervision of the teachers is spot on!” Burnett says.
Burnett says she lost her dental insurance when she retired. So, she and her husband went looking for a less expensive alternative to traditional dentistry.
Before patients are admitted to the student dentistry practice, they are evaluated to be sure their level of care is within the capabilities of the students who will be serving them.
“We want patients to understand how the school works. For some patients, it doesn’t suit them,” Archer says.
“You have to have a lot of time. It takes a lot longer to get something done
here than it would on the outside. So a filling that would take 25 minutes might take two hours here because of all the check steps.”
Burnett says that has worked fine for her.
“Financially, it’s definitely an advantage,” she says. “In addition, the supervision and the technology are far above what the normal dentist could offer. The resources here are just phenomenal.”
One of the most important student dentistry programs focuses on helping them learn to work better with patients.
“Standardized patients ” — portrayed by actors —simulate some of the problem patients that a dentist might encounter.
“They give them all different kinds of personalities,” Evan Garrison, a rising third-year student from Harrisonburg, says of the actors. “You’ll deal with someone who’s in traumatic stress.
“They’ll also have someone who is very angry, who is very argumentative. So, if you’re trying to be calm and collected, they’re really going to be trying to push your buttons.”
The VCU School of Dentistry is constantly pushing itself and its students to meet a higher standard, Archer says.
“We feel like we have the responsibility of maintaining the highest level of dental education and making sure we serve the people of the commonwealth by not only educating dentists but also by treating people around the state.”