When it comes to learning about human teeth, there is no substitute for the real thing.
At the Indiana University Northwest Dental Education Program, which is part of the College of Health and Human Services, dental assistant and dental hygiene students master the art of dental care using real human teeth, both in the practice lab and in the IU Northwest Dental Clinic, where community members receive oral exams, x-rays and other basic services from faculty-supervised students at reduced cost.
Of course, before they’re allowed to hone their craft on live patients, students gain experience on mannequins and other practice tools. But it’s not easy to learn proper dental techniques on fake teeth, which is why the IU Northwest Dental Education Program strives to approximate as closely as possible the experience of working on a real set of choppers.
When dental students take radiography classes, for instance, the human teeth they x-ray are real, even though the heads in which they’re set obviously are not. These “radiography mannequins” are plastic heads built around a real human skull, and they give students valuable experience taking dental x-rays.
“You’ve got to remember, when you’re taking an X-ray, you’re looking at the inside of the tooth, not the outside,” said Dr. Steven Holm, D.D.S., a dental instructor at IU Northwest who also has his own practice in Portage. “Obviously, you cannot recreate the inside of a tooth out of plastic and make it look realistic. So that’s what real teeth do – they allow you to look at real human teeth. The students are actually looking at what they’ll be looking at when they work with real patients.”
In December, the Indiana Dental Association Foundation provided the IU Northwest dental program with two new radiography mannequins, at a cost of $6,500 each. The donation was most welcome, according to program director and Assistant Professor of Dental Education Juanita Robinson, because the existing mannequins had seen better days.
“We have old ones that we used last year,” Robinson said. “We had to rubber-band the heads together because they were just so old. So we improvised. And we’ll get to use the new mannequins in the summer.”
Holm, who is a member of the Indiana Dental Association, said the program actually requested four new mannequin heads, but that, with the current economic situation, he was thrilled to receive two.
“They actually have the same thing in a pediatric version that we’d like to get,” he said. “That’s going to take some time. We’ll start with the adult teeth and work our way forward.”
The Dental Education Program also received a generous donation recently from the Northwest Indiana Dental Society in the form of 12 new curing lights, which cost $1,200 each. Curing lights are used to cure or “set” filling paste. Holm explained that, years ago, dentists used chemically cured pastes that had to be mixed and would begin to harden immediately upon mixing. Light-cured paste, he said, consists of a single substance that sets only when exposed to light, meaning that dental practitioners have more time to work with the filling.
Robinson said her program’s curing lights were quite old, and she expressed appreciation for the Dental Society’s donation.
“They really look out for us,” she said.
“It’s nice to have something to work on here at school that is comparable to what you’re going to get in a dental office,” Holm said. “Dental offices don’t use 10-year-old curing lights. It’s always nice to have new equipment.”
The Dental Education Program at IU Northwest offers a certificate in dental assisting and an associate of science degree in dental hygiene. As part of their education, dental students work in the IU Northwest Dental Clinic, which provides them with hands-on experience while also providing the Northwest Indiana community with low-cost dental services. Holm noted that clinic appointments may take longer than a regular dentist visit, but he and Robinson said the results are worth the extra time.
“We have a lot of people in the community who are taking advantage of it,” Robinson said. “It’s the best cleaning that you’ll ever have. And everything that the student does is checked by faculty. If you’ve got a family dentist, we will send a report of what we’ve done and the radiographs we took to your family dentist.”
The IU Northwest Dental Clinic provides diagnostic and preventative dental care, including oral examinations, dental cleaning, fluoride treatments, x-rays, dental sealants, oral hygiene instruction, and referrals. Hours are 8 a.m. until 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Tuesday, and 8 a.m. until 12 p.m. on Saturday. Appointments are recommended, but walk-in patients may be accepted depending on availability.
To schedule a dental appointment, call the IU Northwest Dental Clinic at (219) 980-6772. For more information about the Dental Education Program, call (219) 980-6770.