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In San Diego clinics, ADA president finds 'hope' for solution to dental care access

June 05, 2018

By Michelle Manchir

Group photo of Dr. Crowley with members of the Pacific Beach Clinic
Care at the clinic: ADA President Joseph P. Crowley, second from right in black jacket, pauses his tour of the Pacific Beach Clinic, located in a Methodist church in San Diego. The clinic is among four operated as part of the University of California San Diego Student-Run Free Dental Clinics. Dr. Irvin Silverstein, right, next to Dr. Crowley, and Donna Kritz-Silverstein, Ph.D., front row, second from right, are two of the advisors of the clinics.
San Diego — During his two-day visit in April to one-of-a-kind dental clinics run primarily by predental students under the direction of professionals, ADA President Joseph P. Crowley found appreciative patients and dedicated volunteers.

He also found an efficient model for charitable dental care that could be replicated throughout the country, he said.

The University of California San Diego Student-Run Free Dental Clinic Project was established in 1999 with the goal of increasing access to dental services for the underserved. It also provides an educational experience for undergraduate students considering careers in dentistry, dental students on rotations and an opportunity for dental professionals to give back to their community.

From its modest beginning as a one-site, one night per week project, the Free Dental Clinic Project now operates at four sites, providing six to eight days per week of care, according to Dr. Irvin Silverstein and Donna Kritz-Silverstein, Ph.D., who oversee the program. Patients are currently seen in donated space at two churches and a school in San Diego. In November 2015, they opened a fourth free dental clinic at Veteran's Village representing a partnership between the San Diego County Dental Health Foundation, Veteran's Village of San Diego, and the UCSD Free Dental Clinic Project.

Services at the clinics include no cost preventive care and general restorative care and specialty services including endodontics, oral surgery, orthodontics, periodontics, prosthodontics and pediatric dentistry. Furthermore, the project is part of the larger transdisciplinary UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic Project, said Dr. Silverstein. In addition to dental care, patients at the clinics can receive medical care and also access a pharmacy, legal help, social work and even acupuncture.

Group photo of Dr. Crowley addressing students and dental clinic volunteers
Addressing volunteers: ADA President Joseph P. Crowley addresses University of California San Diego predental students and dental clinic volunteers during his trip to the Golden State in April.
While recognizing that other institutions — government, community, families, third-party payers — need to come to the table for long-term solutions to dental care access in the U.S., Dr. Crowley said the University of California San Diego Student-Run Free Dental Clinic Project is among the most remarkable models of donated care he's ever come across.
"The volunteers here are filling the void everyone knows is there in an innovative way that is life-changing for many of the patients," Dr. Crowley told the ADA News.

The project represents a collaboration between the university, the community, local nonprofits and the work of loyal volunteers, he said.

For Dr. Crowley, another remarkable part of the project is the predental student volunteer group, overseen by dental and other professionals, who keep the clinics running.

The predental students are given the training they need to serve as chairside dental assistants as well as taking radiographs and completing administrative work that help ensure each patient gets the comprehensive care they need. Many of the predental students involved with the clinics go on to graduate from dental school and continue to volunteer at the clinics as a dentist or specialist, Dr. Silverstein said.

More than $9.4 million in dental care has been provided during more than 32,100 patient visits since the project launched about 18 years ago through February of this year, said Dr. Silverstein.

"The free dental clinics serve as a safety net for San Diego County," Dr. Silverstein said.

Group photo of Dr. Crowley talkig with middle school students
Emphasizing education: ADA President Joseph P. Crowley talks with middle school students at the Lemon Grove Academy for Sciences and Humanities during his trip to San Diego in April. The academy is a site for one of the dental clinics operated as part of the University of California San Diego Student-Run Free Dental Clinics. Photo by Nuri Turkoglu.
During his visit, Dr. Crowley was able to tour each clinic and talk with patients, staff and volunteers. At one of the sites, Lemon Grove Academy for the Science and Humanities, a public school in an underserved area, he spoke with students in middle school about the importance of education. What stands out about the school clinic, Dr. Crowley said, is that students show little fear of the dentist, because it exists directly outside their classrooms.

"They're touched by dentistry every day," he said.  Because of the regular access to dental care and education, "It becomes ingrained in them that they can prevent dental disease."

Dr. Crowley said the unique program should and could be replicated in other cities, especially as he sees a renewed awakening in healthcare about the connections between oral and systemic health.

Still, the project also represents a conundrum when it comes to delivering dental care to the underserved. While "charity is not a health care system," Dr. Crowley said. "Dentists are out in their communities, donating care every day."

He said he sees "hope" for a long-term and sustainable solution when he sees strong collaborations like the one in San Diego.

"It was an all-around great experience," he said of his visit to the clinics. "There is hope on the outside of it."

For more information about the University of California San Diego Student-Run Free Dental clinic Project and the UCSD Pre-Dental Society, visit or email