Newswise, December 1, 2015 — Students and faculty at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Dental Medicine are treating seniors in a dentist’s office on wheels—a 38-foot van, in fact, renovated to provide full-service oral care.
“There’s almost no difference between our van and a traditional dentist’s office,” said Nicole Harris, a visiting assistant professor in the dental school’s Department of Community Dentistry.
Dental students, under supervision of faculty, provide, oral exams, digital X-rays, cleanings, fillings, dentures, extractions and cancer screenings on the van for many patients who haven’t visited a dentist in years.
The "Lifelong Smiles" van is driven and parked outside nursing homes and assisted-living facilities for residents to come aboard. In addition, two portable dental chairs are set up in facilities for those patients who cannot get on the van.
“There’s a perception it’s more difficult to treat seniors, which has kept many dentists in their comfort zones, avoiding these patients,” said James Lalumandier, chair and professor in the dental school’s Department of Community Dentistry. “We want to reverse that—and need to—given our current and future dental needs.”
The van is the centerpiece of a new dental school initiative known as the Geriatric Dental Program, which was created, in part, as a response to changing demographics nationally, said Lalumandier.
The nation’s senior population—ages 65 and older—is expected to surpass 72 million by 2030—more than double the number from 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Often, underserved elderly populations cannot go out and get care on their own. So we’re building a model where we go to them,” said Suparna A. Mahalaha, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Community Dentistry and co-director of its new Geriatric Dental Program, along with Harris.
“At the same time, by providing students experience with older patients, we’re planting a seed in them to serve seniors during their careers.”
Soon, medical, nursing and social work students at Case Western Reserve also will accompany dental students in assessing patients in facilities where the van is parked, as part of an emphasis on increasing interdisciplinary training in the health sciences.
“It used to be people just lost their teeth. In today’s world, seniors are retaining a good portion of their teeth and need specialized care that’s in fitting with their overall medical histories,” said Lalumandier.
“Across the health sciences, students are opening their eyes to the idea that oral health is key to a patient’s complete wellbeing.”
The Ohio Department of Health donated the vehicle to the university after reviewing competing proposals from across the state. Funds for the van’s overhaul were provided by the McGregor Foundation, the Dental Trade Alliance Foundation and others