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UI mobile dental unit wins national award for geriatric care

IOWA CITY, Iowa ­- Since 1980, University of Iowa College of Dentistry faculty members and students have taken their clinical services on the road, providing care for more than 3,500 residents of Iowa nursing homes. This year, they were honored with the American Dental Association's Geriatric Oral Health Care Award.

The Geriatric Mobile Dental Unit (GMU) is both a service program and an educational resource, treating patients while offering senior dental students hands-on clinical experience. It currently visits 10 long-term care facilities within a 40-mile radius of Iowa City, as well as a number of homebound hospice patients and elderly adults.

"We're very proud that the program has been noted nationally," said Howard Cowen, D.D.S., assistant professor of preventive and community dentistry and director of the college's Special Care Program, adding that the award shows how well the GMU is accomplishing its goals.

The GMU uses a 25-foot mobile trailer to transport portable operatories, a radiograph processor, sterilizing equipment, a small prosthetic lab and storage space. Three dental students, a dental assistant, a dental hygienist, and a faculty member provide clinical services at nursing homes visited by the unit.

In Iowa and across the country, about 5 percent of elderly people live in long-term care facilities, often with limited access to regular dental care. The GMU provides free screenings to all residents of the facilities it serves. Consent requests for further examinations and care are sent to those who are legally or financially responsible for the residents.

"The demand is overwhelming," Cowen said, noting that he receives at least two inquiries each month from additional nursing homes requesting service. He added, however, that some elderly patients and their caregivers may be apprehensive about dental care, perhaps recalling the discomfort associated with it decades ago.

"I think the most surprising thing is how little stress most patients feel and how easily they cope with dental treatment," Cowen said. "I can feel secure telling caregivers how well patients tolerate and appreciate care."

Cowen noted that future generations of older adults will be accustomed to quality oral health care and will expect more from their dentists. For students, the GMU -- combined with experience in the college's Special Care Clinic -- prepares them for the demands of private practice.

The experience shows students that they can successfully treat patients whose care may be complicated by anything from disabilities to chronic health problems to dementia. "We are trying to follow up with graduates to see if they are treating more patients with special needs," Cowen said.

The program has been well received by the communities it serves, generating financial support from the United Way of Johnson County, Johnson County Department of Human Services and other sources. Cowen hopes that additional resources will fund new equipment and personnel, permitting the program to expand and better respond to emergency calls. He would also like to see a statewide referral network of community dentists available to treat elderly compromised patients.