Despite modern medical advances and practically pain-free procedures, many people still retain a sense of dread when visiting their Family dentist.
After all, it's hard for the layman to predict when an X-ray will return with the telltale signs of decay that call for a dose of the dentist's drill, or for the unlucky, the added bonus of a root canal.
While certain dental woes are inevitable, others are highly preventable. To tip the odds in the patient's favor, the Army is training Soldiers so they can prevent problems before they take root.
The Preventive Dentistry Course at the AMEDD Center and School equips Soldiers with the skills to provide dental hygiene support, with a focus on Soldiers deployed in support of the Global War on Terrorism.
"Preventive dental specialists exist to support the deployed Soldier," said Col. Robert Lutka, chief of the dental specialist branch. "Their job is to help keep dental problems from developing so Soldiers can spend less time in a dental chair and more time carrying out their mission."
During the course, students learn to perform oral hygiene preventive procedures, conduct oral disease control programs, apply sealants, evaluate X-rays, and sterilize dental instruments and equipment.
The course is a specialty for 68E dental specialists, and adds to knowledge gained in the classroom and out in the field. But first the Soldiers have to make it through the tough 12-week course, which has an average attrition rate of 20 percent for the first week.
"It's a challenging course, but many excel. Many of our former students go on to become dentists or physician assistants," said Lutka. "We take the cream of the crop here."
The course includes six weeks of classroom training followed by six weeks in a working dental clinic, which is just down the hall from the classroom. The clinic is the only fully functional clinic in the AMEDD Center and School, Lutka said. For the other courses, such as nursing specialties, the hands-on portion takes place in a hospital.
"Students go straight from here into the field," Lutka said. "So we have to ensure they are ready to be an independent care provider when they leave this course."
Without a lengthier practice phase, students are put to the test daily at the clinic. With a clientele primarily comprising retirees and their spouses, students learn to think quickly on their feet as they are exposed to a variety of oral health issues, to include patients with crowns, bridges and implants.
"We have an older patient population, so students learn to treat a full gamut of oral health issues," said Sgt. 1st Class Heidi Mayberry, NCO-in-charge of the Preventive Dentistry Course. "It's excellent for their training, because when they go to the garrison dental clinic or overseas, they have already been exposed to a wide variety of dental issues."
As the students examine and treat patients, instructors step in at various points to make teaching points and provide oversight of the proposed dental care plan and work.
Additionally, Lutka must be in the area at all times in case of a medical emergency. As a result of the quality measures, a visit to the school's clinic may be upwards of three hours versus an hour at a local dentist. But the care is thorough and, since the service is free, the price is right for many beneficiaries.
"I've been coming here for decades," said patient Leslie Andermann. "I come every three months and the care is very good."
For the students, a chance to practice their classroom-learned skills offers opportunities, as well as a new set of potential roadblocks.
"It's a challenge to interact with different patients," said student Pvt. Jasmine Gaddy. "Someone may have a heart condition, but you can't panic. Overall, it's great experience."
As an added bonus, students can refer patients for same-day service if they spot a significant oral lesion concern.
"We're very grateful Brooke Army Medical Center can support us in that way," Lutka said.
Once the students graduate, many will provide garrison support, while others will be sent overseas to support deployed Soldiers. Lutka said the intense training will pay off overseas where the Soldiers act independently.
"The preventive dental specialists are able to set up shop in a separate tent from the dentist," Lutka said. "They provide services to the deployed Soldier that are normally conducted by a dentist or registered hygienist, such as use of the cavitron, which is an ultrasonic cleaning device."
The Soldiers also provide fluoride varnish and sealants, which play a significant role in improving oral health, Lutka said.
"We ask a lot of our students, but the pay off is that they are able to hit the ground running overseas," he said. "That's where the training really counts."