As reported by the New Haven Register, April 12, 2004.

Today's Dentistry Is About More Than Fixing Teeth

Since she was 15, Ruth Goldblatt, DMD, has wanted to be a dentist. Today, after five years of private practice and six years of providing mobile dentistry to nursing home patients, she is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine in Farmington and the Director of Dentistry at the Hebrew Home and Hospital in West Hartford. She spends her days caring for older patients and preparing dental students to be a positive force in the dental profession.

By Wendy L. Thomson

To Dr. Goldblatt, dentistry is about a lot more than fixing a person's teeth. It is about treating the whole person — and possibly using the mouth as a window to learning about other problems a person may have. "Dentistry is becoming more complex and more focused on the whole patient," says Goldblatt. This is one of the main things the UConn teaches its dental students. "We graduate doctors of dental medicine who treat more than teeth," Goldblatt explains. "Dentists who feel comfortable talking to patients and then calling their physicians and working together to improve outcomes."

It's no wonder that graduates from UConn's dental school feel comfortable with this philosophy: the first two years of their dental training are mainly devoted to basic medical science; dental students learn side by side with the medical students. The last two years focus on clinical experience. Many of the students at UConn's dental school pursue even more training following graduation — opting to do residencies in either general dentistry or in a dental specialty.

As a dentist who often works with geriatric patients, Dr. Goldblatt is constantly confronted with the increasing complexity of dental care. According to the Academy of General Dentistry, 85 percent of people over age 65 have one or more chronic illnesses — illnesses that either affect their dental health or that have side effects that can be spotted by their dentist. "What if your patient has severe arthritis?" asks Goldblatt. "You have to figure out a way to modify a toothbrush so that the patient can hold it better. Or, what if a patient has a broken partial denture-but is suffering from dementia and can't follow the instructions necessary to help you make a new one or fix the old one?"

"Your mouth does not exist in a vacuum," Goldblatt continues. "The better you are at looking at all of the cues a patient brings to you, the better you will be at treating the patient. So much can be learned about patients by watching, asking the right questions and really listening to the answers."

Goldblatt points out that there is a growing need for dentists who are well versed in taking care of older patients. The Academy of General Dentistry estimates that by the year 2040, adults over the age of 65 will account for 21 percent of the U.S. population. "There are so many adults who are keeping their teeth longer now," says Dr. Goldblatt. "There are people in long-term care situations who have dental implants, bridges and other complex dental issues that need to be taken into account. Dentists need to look at the whole picture-right down to office design." Magazines with larger print, better lighting, bills with larger lettering and even colors schemes that make it easier for patients to navigate in the dental office are just a few of her suggestions.

Surprisingly, the American Dental Association does not yet recognize geriatric dentistry as a specialty area — but there are organizations that provide guidance to both dentists and patients. The American Society for Geriatric Dentistry is a component of Special Care Dentistry, a national and international organization of oral health professionals and others dedicated to promoting oral health and well being for people with special needs — including the elderly.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, most dentists are still general practitioners and others practice in one of nine dental specialties: 1) orthodontics (who straighten teeth with braces); 2) oral surgeons (who operate on the mouth or jaws); 3) pediatric dentists; 4) periodontists (who treat gums and the bones that support the teeth); 5) prosthodontists (who replace teeth with crowns, bridges and dentures); 6) endodontists (who provide root canal therapy); 7) public health dentists (who promote dental health in the community); 8) oral pathologists (who study oral diseases); and 9) oral and maxillofacial radiologists (who diagnose diseases in the head and neck).

Those interested in pursuing a dental career should know that competition is rigorous. People come from all over the country — and even the world — to attend the University of Connecticut's School of Dental Medicine. The school's class of 2003 ranked #1 in terms of national board scores. "Being a dentist takes a lot of effort, time and money," says Goldblatt. That's why she does everything she can to help students make the right decision. A few weeks ago, she visited a sixth grade class to talk about the opportunities available in healthcare and dentistry. "It would be a great pleasure if one day a student told me I had influenced him or her to become a dentist," she says.