Dental clinic students pair up with dummies

by Liz Riggs

Hunched over his patient, first-year dental student Aaron Swingdorf focused on removing the decayed portion of a tooth.

Suddenly, the routine cavity-filling took a potentially painful turn.

“Demolished it,” Swingdorf said from behind his blue surgical mask. But there was little alarm in his voice as his computer monitor flashed red, informing him he had just damaged his patient’s medial adjacent tooth.

Fortunately for Swingdorf, his patient was only a lifelike mannequin, and with a price of $1.72 a plastic tooth, what could’ve been a real-life dental nightmare turned into a relatively painless procedure.

Starting this semester, dental students will get a lot of face time with the simulated patients. The University School of Dentistry’s new Advanced Simulation Clinic opened for classes Monday, completing another phase in the school’s upgrade process.

The Advanced Simulation Clinic, a newly built facility in Moos Tower, houses 20 work stations, complete with dental tools, a flat-screen monitor and a realistic mannequin with soft, rubbery cheeks – a $75,000 package. Here, students can fill cavities and build crowns, among other things.

The clinic is the second part of a $9.2 million, 11,200 square-foot overhaul of previous dental school facilities primarily used by first- and second-year students.

Last May, the first part of the clinic, the 3M Foundation Dental Simulation Clinic, opened, equipped with 100 mannequins to aid in more basic procedures.

Funding for the project came from a variety of sources, including $1 million from the 3M Corporation.

The sheer volume of faculty and staff contributions made this project “unusual” in terms of University fundraising, School of Dentistry spokeswoman Claudia Kanter said

The facility will emphasize a student-driven classroom rather than a teacher-driven one, Patrick Lloyd, dean of the School of Dentistry, said.

“It’s been a big turnaround for us,” he said, adding that the technology boost will help with recruitment as well. “We want to make sure we continue to attract the best students.”

The technology could have implications on Minnesota’s future dentists – nearly 80 percent of the state’s current dentists graduated from the University’s School of Dentistry.

Each console in the Advanced Simulation Clinic features an infrared camera that tracks students’ interactions with their mannequin.

The computers also inform students when they’ve made an error in a procedure. Anything from sloppy posture to more serious procedural miscues will trigger a bell-like warning from the computer.

Judith Buchanan, associate dean of academic affairs, said adjusting to computer critiques can be difficult, but students quickly learn how to internalize the feedback.

“It’s like Pavlov’s bell and the dogs,” Buchanan said.

Lloyd and Buchanan both said two of the most attractive features of the new equipment are its ability to objectively grade student performance.

“It’s like judging art,” Buchanan said, referring to the subjectivity of evaluating a student’s finished work product.

First-year dental student Geoff Sudit and Swingdorf also said the pressure of performing in front of teachers can, at times, be intense.

Sudit said he could recall at least one occasion where nerves heated up the situation.

“I couldn’t see out of my glasses, they fogged up so much,” he said of a time when a professor stood over his shoulder.

The University is the first Big Ten dental school to offer the virtual reality-based technology and one of only eight schools in the nation to boast such a clinic.

Alan Russell, a Minneapolis dentist, graduated from the University’s dental school in 1983 and heard about the clinics in a magazine. He said the technology isn’t necessarily advanced, but will provide consistency through grading.

“It’s not going to make or break the way anybody does dentistry,” he said, “but I think as a learning device it’s consistent, more fair.”

Russell said he wasn’t sure if the mannequin practice would give students an edge over competition after graduation, but would help them prepare for work in their third and fourth years of dental school.

“They aren’t people, they don’t have cheeks and tongues and blood flowing through them,” he said. “So eventually you have to get there to work on the real thing.”

Sudit said the new clinic is being noticed by other alumni, too.

“I can tell you my dad was here during the ’80s and his mouth dropped,” he said. “He was very impressed.”