College's Free Dental Services a Boon to the Community

April 6, 2018
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Since Thomas Nelson Community College's dental hygiene program began offering free care to area residents in January, it has encountered a problem many dentist offices might envy.  Patients don’t seem to be dreading the experience.

“I have so many patients now I’m already booking into the fall,” said La’Shawn Littles, the program's Clinical Dental Assistant/Trainer and Instructor. “My phone never stops ringing, which is a good thing.”

Offered at the Historic Triangle campus in Williamsburg, the program benefits students and patients alike. Students experience hands-on training on real patients and patients are eligible for four free cleanings a year. Most insurance companies cover only two. While the program was designed to train students to perform cleanings, students can also do minor procedures, including temporary fillings and repairing crowns. 

At Thomas Nelson's dental clinic, patients get the same experience they would encounter at a dental office from the time they schedule an appointment to the time they leave. Patients are expected to arrive on time for check in at the second-floor clinic.  Once checked in, a patient is escorted to the treatment area which includes about a dozen chairs and stations, all with the look and feel of a regular dentist’s office.

The length of time for an appointment is the only difference patients will encounter. Since students are doing the work, appointments are scheduled for three hours instead of the normal 45-60 minutes at a dental office.

“But we do a full medical, a full dental, take your blood pressure, take your pulse,” Littles said. “I mean those are things that you would never get done in a regular dental office unless you have a medical condition. And you’re lucky if they do it then.”

Littles lets the patients know when they schedule the appointment how long it will last, but the time is well-spent.

“A lot of our patients say, ‘That is the most thorough cleaning. My teeth feel so much cleaner when I come here,’” she said.

Littles said some people have reservations about students performing the actual work. However, students are never alone with patients. There is always a faculty member or dentist assisting as students perform an exam.

“They do not just go rogue and do what they want to do,” Littles said.

Supervising dentist Dr. Elise Adrian closely monitors students, said Littles. Adrian helps with patient exams, X-rays and more.

“She’s teaching them what to look for when they’re treating a patient: What do you think this diagnosis is and tell me why,” Littles said.

The dental hygiene team includes Program Coordinator Dr. Harold Marioneaux along with associate professors Christina Quiros and Margaret Dunfee, adjunct faculty member Toneisha Croft and Theresa Jackson, an administrative assistant.

Littles said between 20-30 area residents take advantage of the service each month keeping the students busy.

“We’re having to see more patients so they have to adjust their patient load, which is a good thing,” Littles said. “So that way, when they’re getting ready to graduate, they can handle [more] patients.”