BTN LiveBIG: Iowa students brighten smiles across the state

BTN LiveBIG: Iowa students brighten smiles across the state

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During football and basketball games, BTN LiveBIG will spotlight notable examples of research, innovation and community service from around the conference. In-Game stories will provide more background on these features, and the opportunity to view the videos again.

It may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in Postville, Iowa, everyone looks forward to when the dentists come to town. And at the end of their whirlwind, one-day visit, everyone’s smile is a little brighter, thanks to the University of Iowa’s Project SEALED.

Along with their portable dental equipment, the Hawkeye dentists bring stuffed animals and toys and oversized models of toothbrushes that make the children laugh. They joke with the kids as they clean their teeth and show them how to properly floss.

“One of the mottos of the pediatric department at the University of Iowa is that kids’ first dental experience should be the highlight of their day,” dental student David Knight explained. “So our goal is to try to get the kids to have a lot of fun and introduce them to dentistry in a way that they look at it as something good, rather than something that’s scary.”

In more rural areas of Iowa and other Midwestern states, dental care can be a costly proposition for some families, often falling below other forms of healthcare on their scale of priorities. Also, because dental offices are sometimes several miles away, a visit to the dentist can also take a great deal of time out of their schedules. That, in turn, can result in missed work and wages for parents and missed learning opportunities for kids.

Project SEALED provides 80 third-year students a hands-on chance to practice dentistry in underserved communities in northeastern Iowa. Every quarter, 20 students visit Postville and Waukon, setting up a bank of mobile chairs to offer preventative care in the form of screenings, cleanings and lessons in proper oral hygiene.

“One of the great things this program does is get [dental students] out of the school environment and … into the communities,” said Dr. Dan Caplan, director of Project SEALED. “It expands their vision of what oral healthcare providers can do and how they can help people in a bunch of different ways.”

Project SEALED began rather serendipitously in 2012. The director of the board of health for rural Allamakee County reached out to Caplan and the College of Dentistry with a specific request: help in addressing lackluster dental health among area youth and overall access to dental care. At the same time, the university provost’s office began issuing grants to fund service-learning opportunities for students.

“It’s always nice to see a whole lot of work behind the scenes pay off in something that’s beneficial for a whole lot of different parties,” said Caplan, chair of the university’s Department of Preventative and Community Dentistry.

While Knight is quick to acknowledge the unparalleled experience that Project SEALED affords him and other dental students, he said there’s something a bit simpler that makes it all worthwhile.

“When a kid sits up in his chair, gives me a high-five and then runs off to his next class,” he said, “I can’t help but smile.”

By John Tolley

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