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In Cleveland, dental students spark senior smiles

February 01, 2016

By Kimber Solana

Dr. Suparna A. Mahalaha and Dr. Nicole Harris in the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine renovated van
Care on wheels: Drs. Suparna Mahalaha (left) and Nicole Harris sit in a 38-foot van which visits nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to treat about 95 seniors. Both visiting assistant professors serve as co-directors Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine’s Geriatric Dental Program. Photo by John Quinn/ Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland — More senior citizens here are receiving dental care thanks to a new Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine initiative and a renovated 38-foot van.

In the school’s new Geriatric Dental Program, nursing home and assisted-living facility residents are invited to come aboard the “Lifelong Smiles” van to receive full-service oral care.

As of Jan. 28, “95 seniors and counting” are receiving care through the dental van, and about 500 residents and nursing staff has received oral health education as part of an outreach effort of the program, said Dr. Suparna A. Mahalaha, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Community Dentistry and co-director of the new program.

“There’s almost no difference between our van and a traditional dentist’s office,” said Dr. Nicole Harris, a visiting assistant professor in the school’s Department of Community Dentistry.

In addition, the program, which launched on Aug. 10, 2015, serves as a teaching tool for dental students who began clinical rotations on the van last fall semester. Third-year dental students take classes in providing oral care to seniors while fourth-year students complete clinical rotations in the van. Completing the geriatric program is mandatory for all dental students.

“There’s a perception it’s more difficult to treat seniors, which has kept many dentists in their comfort zones, avoiding these patients,” said Dr. James Lalumandier, chair and professor in the dental school’s Department of Community Dentistry. “We want to reverse that — and need to — given our current and future dental needs.”

The Geriatric Dental Program was created, in part, as a response to a growing senior population in the U.S., said Dr. Lalumandier.

“Often, underserved elderly populations cannot go out and get care on their own. So we’re building a model where we go to them,” said Dr. Mahalaha. “At the same time, by providing students experience with older patients, we’re planting a seed in them to serve seniors during their careers.”

The van pays weekly visits to two assisted-living residential day programs in Cleveland, and the dental school is looking to expand the number of locations students serve.