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Release: Dec. 9, 1999

UI College of Dentistry acquires new Geriatric Mobile Dental Unit

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- An award-winning outreach program at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry has a new vehicle for transporting complete dental care to residents of area long-term care facilities.

Last year, the American Dental Association honored the College's Geriatric Mobile Dental Unit (GMU) with its top award for geriatric care. A 30-foot motor home purchased this fall replaces a 25-year-old trailer used to haul the program's equipment from place to place.

The cost of the new unit was $114,000, of which $108,000 came from central University funds. The College of Dentistry contributed the remainder.

"The university is pleased to support the College of Dentistry's commitment to serve our elderly citizens who live in a nursing home," said UI President Mary Sue Coleman. "The new Geriatric Mobile Dental Unit will ensure that many elderly Iowans will be able to receive the high-quality dental care they deserve and increasingly need."

At present, the GMU visits 10 facilities within a 40-mile radius of Iowa City, as well as a number of homebound hospice patients and elderly adults. It is both an educational resource and a service program, treating patients while offering senior dental students hands-on clinical experience.

Unfortunately, demand for the GMU's services has outpaced its capacity to provide them, said Howard Cowen, D.D.S., associate professor of preventive and community dentistry and director of the Special Care Program at the College of Dentistry. Each month, he hears from at least two nursing homes requesting service.

Since the GMU spends up to eight weeks seeing patients at each site, adding more facilities would limit its ability to provide effective follow-up care. At present, each facility on the unit's route can expect a return visit every 15 to 18 months. Between visits, dental hygienists travel to the facilities to offer regular teeth cleanings every six months.

With additional equipment and more faculty dentists, the GMU may be able to see more patients. For now, the new unit will primarily move portable equipment that is set up at the facilities it visits. Eventually, a dental operatory and the resources needed to run it may be installed in the mobile unit itself, letting the program deliver comprehensive dental care virtually anywhere on the road.

"We hope that the vehicle will give us the support to go out and provide care to more isolated groups," Cowen said. With additional faculty resources, he hopes to have the unit running five days a week, up from the current three.

The demand for dental care among the elderly will only rise as the population ages. Progress in treatment and prevention of dental disease means that more older adults have more teeth and thus a greater need for care. In addition, new generations of elderly accustomed to a high standard of care may expect more dental treatment as they age.

The GMU and the on-site Special Care Clinic at the UI College of Dentistry are driven by the philosophy that older people and people with disabilities or chronic health problems need access to comprehensive dental treatment. These programs aim to help dental students feel comfortable working with different types of patients in hopes that they will continue caring for them once they graduate and enter practice.

To further help meet the need for care, UI dental faculty regularly offer continuing education for practicing dentists interested in learning more about treating elderly and disabled patients. Cowen and colleagues also are investigating whether county dental societies can develop and administer mobile programs like the GMU.

The GMU has proven to be exceptionally popular in the communities it serves, generating financial support from the United Way of Johnson County, the Johnson County Department of Human Services and other sources.