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The Daily Tar Heel

Commissioners Renew Deal With Dental Students

The agreement allows students to gain real-world experience working with health departments throughout the county.

At its regular business meeting, the Orange County Board of Commissioners opted to renew an agreement that places UNC School of Dentistry students in Carrboro, Hillsborough and Chapel Hill health departments.

The county annually contracts with the dental school to help staff the clinics at a cost of $42,585, which comes out of the Orange County Health Department's annual budget.

Instead of directly benefiting the dental school, part of the county's annual funding goes straight to the pockets of the UNC students stationed at the various health departments for their services.

The partnership began 23 years ago with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The first students involved in this endeavor did not see patients until Feb. 28, 1980, two years after the grant was enacted.

The grant funded the project until the health department took the helm as the primary sponsor almost 10 years later.

Dental students involved in the program conduct annual state-mandated screenings in all county elementary schools to check for tooth decay.

The screenings target children enrolled in kindergarten, second, fourth and fifth grades -- students who otherwise might not routinely see a dentist.

Eugene Sandler, a professor at the UNC School of Dental Ecology, said the program benefits UNC students in addition to county residents because it gives students hands-on career experience.

"It's a win-win situation," Sandler said. "We have a very symbiotic relationship."

Sandler moved to the Chapel Hill area in 1979 to help design and implement the program.

He said the partnership helps promote community interaction between residents and students while also providing these students with meaningful career experience.

"It puts the students into the real world, out of the ivory tower of the dental school," Sandler said. "It helps them to be more well rounded in their thinking about what could happen in the future."

Students sometimes reconsider their career goals or re-evaluate career possibilities after working in the public health field, he said.

"It helps them plan their future." Sandler said. "Most come in thinking they'll go into private practice."

Not only does the program provide real-life experience for students, Sandler said the partnership has made an impact on the dental health of county children.

Screening results state that cavities in Orange County children, enrolled in first through eighth grades, have been reduced by more than 50 percent during the past 20 years.

Dental students donate their services to school-aged students three days a week, while they generally only dedicate two days a week to adult care.

Orange County is one of only about 20 to 25 other counties that have similar dental care units in county health department units, Sandler said.

He said the entire dental community of Orange County deserves credit for the program's successes in improving residents' dental health. "The evidence is in the mouths of the children."

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