Street cleaners: U dental students take camper on the road

Seth Woerhle

From his unconventional clinic in a modified Winnebago, Dr. Paul Schulz, with his dental students and assistants, can care for three patients at a time, although it can get a little cramped.

The 37-foot camper, known as UCare Tooth Care, has been retrofitted with compressors, vacuum pumps and a generator to bring dental care to people who might otherwise go without checkups. The unit has been serving patients since Aug. 6.

“It’s great to see people who have been under-served in the past get care,” said Schulz, the project’s full-time dentist and a University faculty member. “I haven’t heard of another program like this (in conjunction with a dental school).”

The project is a partnership between the University’s School of Dentistry and a nonprofit health plan, UCare. While students provide their skills for free, they’re getting experience in return.

“This is great,” said Steve Sawyer, a third-year University dental student. “I don’t know if you could even measure the value of it. It’s great to get out in the community and provide a service.”

Schulz and the rest of the team follow the bus in a van as it drives to its stops. The stops are usually in or close to the metro area, although Schulz said they plan to visit more rural locations.

Before a scheduled stop, UCare members in the area receive mailings with a number to set up appointments – the program is only available to UCare members by appointment.

The UCare Tooth Care team can perform preventive dentistry on approximately 15 patients per day. Schulz said they might add other procedures in the future.

UCare CEO Nancy Feldman said the program, the first time UCare has provided a direct service, was started after her organization learned its members weren’t getting regular dental care, largely because of Minnesota’s dentist shortage.

“One of the biggest issues was a supply issue, that there simply weren’t enough dentists available,” Feldman said. “What we thought was increase the supply by putting dental students and hygienists together in a unit and actually take them out to where our members had the worst access to care.”

Team member Alyssa Hedstrom, a third-year University dental student, said the project was a unique opportunity and her first professional experience outside the classroom.

“I’m really happy to be here and I’m learning a lot,” Hedstom said. “I get to work with different types of people, from kids to adults.”

Eventually, Schulz said, all dental students would spend time working in the mobile clinic. Dr. Paul Olin, associate dean of the dental school, said dental hygiene students would rotate in as well.

The UCare Tooth Care unit is just beginning to work out its schedule and isn’t yet running at full speed – instead of the three patients per hour the team is capable of caring for, it is warming up with two each hour. There are plans to make the unit available for tours on weekends at the State Fair.

“We’re really excited about this,” Feldman said. “With a lot of our work, you can’t see the concrete, end product of what we do and this has been exciting for the staff because people are really going to get care, especially kids who wouldn’t otherwise.”