Old equipment set to bite the dust

A high-tech dentistry patient simulation clinic is planned to open spring 2007.

Jeannine Aquino

Gently tugging one cheek aside, fourth-year dental student Steve Clifford carefully began to remove a cavity from one of his patient’s teeth.

Suddenly, a beep filled the air, causing Clifford to pause and stare at the flat-panel screen attached to a chair. A 3-D representation of a tooth showed he’d just drilled a few millimeters too deep.

What would have been a rather painful visit to the dentist for a real patient became a lesson in dental precision with a state-of-the-art simulation unit. The unit is the only model of its kind at the University, but will be joined by 19 others and open to dental students in spring 2007.

The University plans to renovate nearly 11,200 square feet in Moos Tower to create the most advanced patient simulation clinic at any Big Ten dentistry school. The clinic will add 100 patient mannequins and 20 advanced virtual reality-based simulation units. It will also house a central computer station for instructors, an advanced technology center and a conference room.

“We realized that compared to other dental schools in the Big Ten, we had some catching up to do,” said Patrick Lloyd, dean of the School of Dentistry.

For the past 30 years, the School of Dentistry has not had any major updates in the school’s preclinical laboratories, Lloyd said in a University School of Dentistry brochure.

During the preclinical years, first- and second-year dentistry students fine-tune their manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Students practice things such as how to work on teeth as seen from a mirror and how to hold a drill.

Currently, dentistry students practice on 200 available “teeth-on-a-stick” models. These are an artificial set of teeth attached to a metal rod.

“We saw a great opportunity to capitalize on some technology that has only recently come into play,” Lloyd said.

This technology, according to the School of Dentistry brochure, includes mannequins with lifelike shoulders, adjustable heads and oral cavities with flexible jaws and cheeks. The equipment will include authentic tools, such as a water spray and suction. Each unit will come with a flat-panel screen, affording each student a front-row seat to instructor demonstrations.

The advanced simulators go one step further.

Each mannequin comes equipped with a motion tracking system. According to the brochure, students hold dentistry drills that send out infrared signals and feed students’ work on each tooth to a computer. The screen will then project a 3-D color image of the tooth in real time, providing instant feedback.

The units also come equipped with on-screen textbook material and patient histories. It allows students to practice 100 different procedures with varying degrees of complexity.

“This technology allows students to learn at their own pace, challenge themselves and therefore advance through the curriculum at what could be a greater rate,” Lloyd said.

Judith Buchanan, associate dean of Academic Affairs at the School of Dentistry, has worked with and conducted research on simulation technology since 1998.

“There are about eight or 12 schools that use this technology in the world now,” she said. “I found that students learn almost twice as fast with the technology and this allows us to cut down on the time a student spends in this lab, so they can see patients earlier.”

Dentistry schools at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Tennessee and Virginia Commonwealth University have already upgraded to the new technology, Buchanan said. But the University will be the first in the Big Ten to introduce the advanced simulation units with infrared-equipped drills.

“I think it is a very wise decision by the University to make this jump so they go from being slightly behind everybody to being slightly ahead in the Big Ten,” Buchanan said.

The new clinic will cost $10.5 million. University President Bob Bruininks has committed one-third of University funds to the project and the school will raise the remaining amount from private and corporate donors. Renovations will start in early August. The new facility will be open to preclinical and continuing education dentistry students in 2007.

After his first experience with the advanced simulators, Clifford said they are more realistic and representative of treating an actual patient.

“I wish they would have had it when I was a first- and second-year dental student.”