Keeping up with dental checkups and care can be challenging. But Highlands County has a resource available that many don't know about - the South Florida State College Dental Education Center.
"It's the best kept secret," said Deborah Milliken, supervising dentist for the program, which began offering services to the public in 2004. She oversees the approximately 12 students per program seeking a two-year associate degree in dental hygiene.
The students are supervised by licensed dental hygienists as they provide services such as cleanings, radiographs, sealants, fissurotomy (cleaning and filling of deep crevices), night guards (for teeth grinding), bleaching trays and Arestin gum disease treatment. Local anesthesia is also available.
The students can't drill cavities, do root canals, provide restorations or other work that falls under the umbrella of a dentist, endodontist or periodontal specialist. Patients needing these kinds of services will receive a referral.
v vIn May, I joined the wait list myself. I hadn't been to the dentist in a few years, and I was concerned about the state of my teeth.
Just a couple of days after adding my name, I got a call from the clinic and came in for my initial assessment. I was deemed a Class II degree of difficulty, which meant my cleaning would cost $20. A complete mouth series of X-rays would cost me $25 and a night guard, $20.
More difficult cases cost $40 per cleaning, and children under 18 who are Highlands county residents get treated for free. Cleanings for non-resident kids cost $15.
The same services in a private dental office could cost hundreds of dollars, Milliken said.
My student hygienist was Alejandra Lopez. She led me to a dental chair overlooking Lake Glenada, where my minor dental anxiety was calmed by views of water and wildlife. In addition to the services I paid for, I had my blood pressure, temperature, pulse and respiration checked. She also did a thorough head, neck and mouth exam, checking everything from a mole on my cheek to the size of my thyroid.
People may think they won't get quality care because these are students, but that's not the case, said Milliken.
Twenty-four-year-old Chelsi Huddleston, who is finishing up her first year in the program, agreed. "I have no doubt in my mind patients are getting quality care here. Every single thing that we do, an instructor comes in and checks our work. There's no cutting corners."
The students must have a minimum 2.75 grade point average to be considered for the program, and most of them have over 3.0, said Milliken, who teaches the science portion of the degree. This type of field requires excellent hand-eye coordination and precision hand movements, she added.
So what's the catch?
There's a little saying around the dental clinic: you pay with your time rather than your money. Because the students are learning, they are much slower than a professional hygienist in a private dental office. They need to have their work checked at various checkpoints throughout the process, and they may need to repeat something.
"What would take 45 to 60 minutes in a regular dental office might take five or six hours," Milliken said.
For that reason, it is likely to take several two to two and a half hour visits to get all of the work done that is needed. It took me four visits to get my teeth X-rayed and cleaned, my gums checked for periodontal disease and my night guard molded. It took another two appointments to get my night guard properly fitted.
In those several appointments I received a substantial amount of dental health education from Lopez, who showed me the best way to brush each type of tooth and even got me flossing on a regular basis.
A great emphasis is placed on prevention and dental health education, said Milliken.
"If you floss every day you will add seven years of healthy life expectancy," she said, adding, "It reduces inflammation in the whole body."
v vOf course, providing quality dental care to the public is only half of the equation; the other half is ensuring an optimal educational opportunity for the students.
Dental education clinic patients are asked to keep their appointments and to show up on time. Also, clients have to be patient and willing to allow the students to provide the entire spectrum of care deemed appropriate so that they can practice their skills.
"Our grades depend upon having somebody in that chair," said Lopez. If someone doesn't show up or drops out, it's the student who is penalized.
At the end of my treatment, I received my own "report card" - no cavities, no need for a referral. There was only a recommendation to see a dentist in six months.
Milliken explained that the education clinic is a not the place to come for biannual checkups. Students need a regular influx of new patients to practice on. Few patients are recalled for follow up.
The clinic will serve more than 300 in a given year. Second-year students will be seeking new patients in the fall semester, which begins Aug. 28.
Milliken said potential patients shouldn't be shy about the state of their teeth and should take this opportunity to learn exactly what is going on in a low-stress environment.
The SFSC Dental Education Center is located at the college's main campus at 600 W. College Drive, Building T, in Avon Park. Call 784-7020 to get on the waiting list. Children 3 years old and up may be seen sooner.