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March 22, 2012

Senate Matters:

Smile! On-campus dental care

Did you know you don’t have to rush from your job in Oakland to a Pittsburgh suburb to find a dentist?

“We may be one of the best kept secrets on campus,” Marnie Oakley, associate dean for clinical affairs at the School of Dental Medicine, said of the school’s Salk Hall dental clinic. “Most people have no idea they can get their dental care just a few strides from their office or dorm.”

And beginning July 1, not only will Pitt’s dental clinic be convenient, but it will be less expensive as well. That’s when the dental clinic will begin offering a 10 percent discount to all Pitt and UPMC employees, students and their family members. Patients still will be responsible for their co-pay but any out-of-pocket expense not covered by insurance is eligible for the discount.  Pitt’s dental clinic participates in all major dental insurance plans including UPMC’s Dental Advantage and the University of Pittsburgh’s Concordia plans.

Currently the clinic is open 8 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday.  A pilot program beginning sometime this spring will extend that to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, with the likelihood of additional extended days.

Aside from the convenience and the Pitt discount, why should you consider using Pitt’s dental clinic?

Ranked sixth in research funding out of 62 accredited national programs, Pitt’s dental school includes more than 180 faculty who generate over $10 million of external funding for dental research. This expertise is tapped in over 160,000 patient visits a year. Need a root canal or a posterior crown or onlay? There is a specialist on site who, more often than not, is available for an immediate evaluation rather than requiring your return for an additional consultation.

Pitt student Yvonne Franke said: “I like that there is a whole team of experts waiting in the wings for when I needed them. Having the best practitioner in the field able to treat me right next to The Pete was the way to go.”

The field of dental medicine is fiercely competitive. The 80 students — out of more than 2,000 applicants — admitted to Pitt’s four-year professional program have an average college GPA of 3.58. First- and second-year students train in a state-of-the-art facility that includes a simulation clinic of 80 mannequins equipped with human-like teeth. By year three, students treat patients and tackle specialized fields of study such as periodontics and maxillofacial surgery.

As a patient at Pitt’s dental clinic, your initial comprehensive dental evaluation is conducted by a dental student with vigilant oversight by a faculty member. At every treatment step, the student must get approval from a faculty supervisor before proceeding.

Svitlana Maksymenko, a lecturer in the Department of Economics, has received dental care at Pitt’s dental clinic for two years.  “I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the students who’ve treated me. They are well-trained and knowledgeable, very professional and caring. It does tend to take a little longer than seeing a dentist in private practice, but proximity trumps that … no commuting, no parking, minimal work down time.”

Maksymenko added, “I’ve enjoyed listening to opinions and suggestions from professors and students about my treatment options. It’s something I probably wouldn’t get at a private practice.”

Last year, 28 percent of U.S. adults did not visit a dentist and about 25 percent lived with untreated cavities. To dentists, whose training exposes the inexorable link between oral health and general well-being, those statistics are a major concern.

“Dentistry is one element of health care often overlooked,” said Jean O’Donnell, associate dean for education and curriculum at the School of Dental Medicine. “The teeth and gums are part of a remarkably dynamic system that touches on virtually every biomedical and behavioral discipline.”

O’Donnell said many conditions that plague the body are manifested in the mouth. Opportunistic oral infections sometimes are a red flag for a more severe systemic problem, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or inadequate fetal development. A dental checkup every six months can identify a problem deeper in the body.

For an example of the impact of oral health on general health, consider saliva. Saliva comes packed with antimicrobial power:  secretary antibodies, antifungal proteins, glycoproteins with antiviral properties. Its natural chemical power thwarts bacterial attack. If its balance is upset — say by HIV infection or another immunosuppressive disorder — the body’s delicate defense system is overwhelmed, admitting fungus and a slew of bacteria. Since salivary function is extremely sensitive to changes in general well-being, regular dental checkups not only ensure good dental health but could provide the first clue to other types of health problems.

To make an appointment at Pitt’s dental clinic, call 412/648-8616. The clinic is located in Salk Hall, next to the Peterson Events Center on Terrace Street. For more information on the clinic, go to

Heiko Spallek is an associate professor at the Center for Dental Informatics and associate dean for faculty development and information management at the School of Dental Medicine.

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