Craft and Care--New dentistry facilities offer world-class experience to patients and students alike

Dental college offers accessible treatment for those with special needs
Iowa’s service for the elderly, people with disabilities, and other patients with special needs has earned international attention. So when the College of Dentistry began planning a building addition, creating a new, more accessible home for these programs became a top priority.

A gift from the Delta Dental of Iowa Foundation helped make it a reality, establishing a state-of-the-art Geriatric and Special Needs Clinic in the new Dental Science Building addition.

“About 70 percent of each dental class rotates through our clinic,” says Howard Cowen (’76 D.D.S., ’95 M.S.), director of the clinic. “The experience helps them learn how to care for all kinds of patients once they enter practice. It’s truly unique among dental schools.”

All of the clinic’s operatories are a little larger than usual, big enough to welcome both patients and their escorts. One is specially designed to treat people in wheelchairs. Two completely private treatment rooms offer options for particularly challenging patients.

As people live longer and keep more of their teeth into old age, the need for specialized dental services becomes ever more profound. The college recently established a geriatric dentistry fellowship to expand expertise in the field.

“Our patients help students understand systemic disease, disabilities, end-of-life care, and other issues,” Cowen says. “A patient who’s 100 years old prompts you to look at dental care in a completely different way.”

Julie Coyne never knows for sure where the day will take her.

Since last summer, the fourth-year dental student has been seeing two to four patients per day in UI College of Dentistry clinics, gaining perspective on what it’ll be like to become a practicing dentist once she graduates in June.

“You learn to help resolve any issue that comes through the door,” she says. “You can be doing one thing in the morning and something completely different in the afternoon. It’s great preparation for the real world.”

There’s no substitute for this kind of experience, particularly in a field like dentistry.

“Dental education is like studio art,” says Michael Kanellis (’79 D.D.S., ’83 M.S., ’95 M.S.), the college’s associate dean for patient care. “Students can begin with theory courses, but when the rubber meets the road, they need to master making things with their hands.”

The college is giving students new settings to learn the craft, and giving patients some of the best dental care available anywhere in the world.

In 2011, the college dedicated a 35,000-square-foot addition to the Dental Science Building, which originally opened in 1973. Over the next three years, renovations will fully modernize all the clinics in the building’s south wing.

The addition—funded by donors, the college, and the university—houses a faculty-staffed general dentistry clinic, facilities for clinical research, and a dramatically improved clinic for treating elderly patients and people with disabilities (see sidebar). The college also recently received a $1 million gift from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust to renovate research space in the building’s north wing.

Additional clinic renovations will provide more privacy for patients while permitting faculty to supervise student work. New teaching stations will centralize X-ray and record access, treatment planning, and prescriptions. Decades-old air-handling systems will be replaced and moved to the building’s roof.

“We’ve been in this building for 35 years, and were due for updates,” Kanellis says. “The renovations reflect evolutions in the way we teach and practice dentistry.”

Iowa’s dental school leads progress in the profession. The program is widely regarded as among the nation’s best, and is the only one to offer advanced education in every specialty recognized by the American Dental Association.

For patients, this means access to some of the best minds and newest techniques in dental care. Almost every College of Dentistry faculty member sees patients.

“When people come here for specialty care, they may be treated by the expert who wrote the book on the subject,” Kanellis says. “We’re probably the largest multispecialty clinic in the Midwest.”

The college schedules about 500 patient visits every day. While some patients book appointments with faculty dentists or residents, many see students who are learning examination, diagnosis, and treatment skills under the close watch of seasoned clinicians.

“Patients love the students,” Kanellis says. “It’s not uncommon for them to bring in cupcakes, send students cards decades later, or speak up when they think faculty are being a little too stern.”

Students begin interacting with patients as soon as their first year of dental school, providing preventive care like cleanings and examinations. They learn hands-on methods in the college’s advanced Simulation Clinic, then begin applying these techniques with real patients during year two.

Intensive clinical experience begins in the third year as students rotate through different dental specialties — a unique facet of Iowa’s program. They spend their fourth year treating family dentistry patients nearly every day.

Information for patients

Looking for top-notch dental care? Call 319-335-7499 to schedule appointments with:

  • Dental students supervised by faculty (reduced fees)
  • Residents who’ve graduated dental school and are training in a specialty (fees lower than usual specialty rates)
  • College of Dentistry faculty (fees similar to other dentists)

Providing in-depth experience in settings that reflect actual practices make dental education more costly than most other fields, medicine included. The fees that patients pay support teaching programs, research, and virtually everything else the college does.

But people who come to the college for care give students something even more valuable. Every patient visit is a one-of-a-kind chance to build communication, critical thinking, and hands-on skills.

“As students, we’re all so grateful for our patients,” Coyne says. “Some come in with very complex needs that challenge us to provide a whole new level of care. Talking, working, and building trust together is a great experience.”

For more information on the UI College of Dentistry, see

Lin Larson
photo by Tom Jorgensen

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© The University of Iowa 2009