Dental students treat underserved in ACTS Program

When Matthew Iritani enters a dental office, it feels like home.

As a boy, Iritani spent hours watching his father, Mark Iritani, DDS, an orthodontist, work with patients. His mother, Patra Watana, DMD, a pediatric dentist, would come to his elementary school to teach the children about oral health.

“I always knew I wanted to grow up to be like mom and dad and go into the profession,” says Iritani, 25, a fourth-year student at the CU School of Dental Medicine.

Today, Iritani is closer to his dream. Through the CU School of Dental Medicine’s Advanced Clinical Training & Services (ACTS) program, he is able to have hands-on experience at the Salud Family Health Centers Sterling clinic.

Service to Colorado communities

Initiated in 1986, the ACTS program was one of the first programs of its kind and has become a national model for service learning programs designed to integrate students into underserved communities. ACTS provides hands-on experiences for fourth-year dental students as they practice in clinics around the state of Colorado. The number of days spent in the community are among the highest in the nation, giving our students the expertise, confidence and skills to immediately improve lives once they graduate.

CU dental student Matthew Iritani and preceptor Dr. Petros Yoon
Fourth-year dental student Matthew Iritani is pictured with his ACTS preceptor Petros Yoon, DDS, outside the Salud Family Health Centers Sterling clinic.

This year, each of the 76 fourth-year dental students will rotate through four to five of the 35 ACTS partner sites, a mixture of urban and rural statewide. More than 70 community dentists, many (46 percent) of whom are CU alumni and also participated in the ACTS program, have faculty appointments as preceptors and oversee the students during their ACTS rotation.

“All of the patients the students see are underserved in some way and have barriers accessing dental care,” says Tamara Tobey, DDS, Director of the ACTS program and an Associate Professor/Clinical Track.

Students appreciate the challenge, she says.

“Our students say it’s one of the best experiences during dental school, it’s valuable for their training and treating these patients is very worthwhile,” says Tobey, adding that prospective dental students often talk about ACTS as a reason they are interested in attending the CU School of Dental Medicine.

Tobey, a 1992 CU School of Dental Medicine graduate, was a student in the program and also a preceptor for more than 20 years.

“It’s always been our goal to expose students to community health centers and diverse populations,” she says. “Our students realize they really are making a difference in those patients’ lives and they might be drawn to working in community health practice as a career. We want to make sure they’re exposed to all options so they can make choices that are meaningful for them.”

From student to teacher

Petros Yoon, DDS, Dental Director at the Salud Family Health Centers Sterling clinic, graduated from the CU School of Dental Medicine in 2015. He now shares his knowledge and experience as a preceptor.

“As an ACTS preceptor, I want to guide the students and help advance their clinical skills and give them practical, real-world experience,” Yoon says. Each student assigned to the Salud Sterling clinic works with Yoon for four weeks, with a two-week break in between so they can go back to the dental school to care for their patients there and meet other school requirements.

Sterling is a small town in comparison to Denver; it has a population of about 14,000 people. It’s a hub for area residents to come for medical and dental services. Some patients drive 60 miles for their appointments.

“We have large families who come to our clinic and we make every effort to see the whole family if we can,” he says. “Sterling is a very tight-knit community and we are proud to serve and be a part of their families.”

Empathic skills are also important for students, who need to learn how to communicate with diverse patient populations, from children to seniors. Time management while providing quality of care is also a critical skill for students to learn. In the dental school setting, because of other variables such as classes, a student may only see two patients a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

In the Sterling clinic, students may see four to five patients a day. Yoon oversees the students’ work, but gives them the opportunity to practice general dentistry, including exams, fillings, oral surgery and more.

“Here, we help them learn how to think critically on the spot, supported by evidence-based research and their clinical training,” Yoon says. “These are skills you really can’t practice unless you’re in a real-life situation.”

For Yoon, providing support to students comes naturally. As a CU dental student, he rotated through the Salud Fort Lupton clinic and understands the importance of the ACTS program. Even if dental students want to take another path – orthodontics, for example – the experience they get in a community health center will be rewarding.

Many opportunities to practice in community

“Petros is the best – he was a fourth year when I was a first year and would help me even then,” Iritani says. “One of the big reasons I wanted to go to Sterling as a rotation was because of him.”

Iritani also has worked in the dental clinic at Denver Health’s Westside Family Health Center and will be assigned to the Worthmore Dental Clinic in Aurora, caring for refugees. He’ll have two more affiliations in the spring.

Iritani is applying for CU’s Graduate Orthodontics Program and hopes to join his dad’s practice. His dad, Mark Iritani, is a 1985 graduate of the CU School of Dental Medicine and also practiced in an underserved part of Colorado as a young dentist.

“ACTS is valuable because it exposes you to what it would be like to work in both public health and private practice,” Matthew Iritani says. “I think the opportunity to see patients in different situations has been beneficial – especially since I went into dentistry because I want to help people.”

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