In 1983, Susan Pillsbury was a student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, a long way from her Maine hometown. Luckily, when she needed a dentist, she only had to travel around the corner, to the Harvard Dental Center on Longwood, where the care provided by student dentists still comes at a price attractive to a college kid.
“I was just a broke student and someone recommended the Dental School to me,” Pillsbury recently recalled, sitting in an examination chair at the center. “I’ve been coming here since.”
Pillsbury, now a Brookline resident, has collected half a dozen crowns, a bridge, and an implant at the center over the years. Cost is one factor that keeps her coming back, but there are many others.
“I like getting to know the students, too,” she said. “They seem to be the cream of the crop. They do a really good job, and everything gets checked by the instructors.”
The Harvard Dental Center has an active base of more than 38,000 patients. It is the only arm of Harvard that provides direct patient care (students at Harvard Medical School do their clinical studies at affiliated hospitals). The faculty group practice — dental patients are divided among three practice groups — recorded more than 18,000 visits last fiscal year.
The other two practice groups — made up of the School of Dental Medicine’s 240 students and collectively known as the Teaching Practices — draw more than 26,000 patient visits a year. One practice group consists of postdoctoral students, who have already received a general dentistry degree and have advanced to one of the more than 12 specialties the School offers.
The other tier of dental practice is provided by students working on their first dental degree, doctor of dental medicine. The students provide care under the guidance of instructors and after going through simulations with dummies and digital models. Students spend their first year studying with peers at the Medical School. They transition to the Dental School in their second year, with patient care beginning in year three.
“The clinical experience students receive [seeing patients] is the most important to their education,” said German Gallucci, faculty chair of the dental center and the Raymond J. and Elva Pomfret Nagle Associate Professor of Restorative Dentistry and Biomaterials Science. “It is in their clinical training that they take the first steps as dental medical professionals. We see them transitioning to the different stages of their clinical experience, becoming confident clinicians at the end of their education.”
Working on a patient for the first time is a watershed in dentists’ careers, Gallucci said, and a moment that sticks in the memory. In his case, the patient was entirely toothless, and needed a complete denture.
“It’s a very special moment in the life of any physician,” Gallucci said.