“You mean, this is all mine,” the little boy asked, holding the new purple toothbrush tightly in his fist. “I get to keep it for me?”
“Yes, it’s all yours,” the dental student said reassuringly. Then she turned to his first-grade classmates, held up two fingers, and asked. “And what are all of you going to do to beat those sugar bugs?”
“Brush two times a day for two minutes,” they replied in unison, giggling with pride for remembering.
Welcome to the first of two service-learning courses at UNLV's School of Dental Medicine — DEN 7156 Community Outreach: Pediatric Education. During this spring semester course, first-year dental students choose an oral health topic, develop a presentation, and deliver age-appropriate information to pre-school, kindergarten, and elementary school children throughout the Clark County School District. When the dental students begin their third-year, they begin the second course, DEN 7359 Community Outreach: Rural Rotation, which involves more hands-on preventive treatments.
According to course director Dr. Christina Demopoulos, the dental students are learning as much from the children as the children are from them during these courses.
“DEN 7156 focuses on oral health education,” Demopoulos said. “The dental students help the kids learn about cavities and what foods can cause them, as well as how to brush and floss properly. With DEN 7359, the dental students conduct supervised oral health screenings and apply fluoride varnish and sealants to protect the kids’ teeth against cavities.
“During both courses, the dental students are interacting with potential future patients and patient populations, and discover some of the challenges that restrict access to consistent oral healthcare.”
Demopoulos earned the 2023 UNLV Community Engagement Service-Learning faculty award for her work with the program.
The encounters help the dental students become aware that some of the children and families the dental school serves live in poverty, or may be limited in resources, Demopoulos explained. Some families face difficult decisions daily, such as whether to buy medicine or food. The students learn, too, that some kids have never been taught how to brush their teeth or lack the means to do so.
“Typically, when the education or prevention sessions conclude, the dental students give each child an oral hygiene bag with a new toothbrush, toothpaste tube, and floss, as appropriate,” Demopoulos continued. “And they are surprised to hear a child say, ‘I haven’t had one (toothbrush) before’ or ‘I have to share one,’ or ‘How do I use this?’ That’s part of the reason these service-learning courses are vital to the dental students’ education. They need to learn about the challenges their patients face that can negatively affect their oral and overall health.”
The courses have been part of the school’s curriculum since its opening in 2002. When Demopoulos became the course director in 2010, she sought to broaden the scope of both.
“We increased the number of schools to visit, added more interactions with children who have special needs, and contacted nonprofits, faith-based organizations, as well as different types of managed care groups to expand our reach and interact with patient populations we had not seen previously,” Demopoulos explained. “As a school, we want to make these student experiences as broad and diverse as possible, and able to help meet the needs within the community that are not being addressed.”
According to Demopoulos, future expansions will not be limited to Clark County. While she plans to increase the number of local schools connected to DEN 7156 from the current 48 to at least 53, she also has proposals in the works to venture into some of the rural and frontier areas of the state.
“It’s one thing to be trained on the skills and techniques that you need to be a dentist — there are plenty of classes and experiences to help accomplish that,” Demopoulos concluded. “What truly makes a difference is when you observe and understand the social determinants of health, you witness and comprehend the needs of your patients and the community in real time, and you gain the confidence to communicate about and address them.
"This service-learning component helps bridge the gap between drill-and-fill technician to patient-centered healthcare professional.”