As reported by The Hartford Courant, April 8, 2007.

Oral Tests Scored By Grins

Community College Students Clean and Screen on Way to Dental Hygienist Careers

By Gregory Seay

FARMINGTON -- The last students and staff of the University of Connecticut's dental school turn out the lights and are barely out the door of clinic No. 4 when the transformation begins.

The lights flicker back on. Dental-hygiene program students at nearby Tunxis Community College wheel their instrument kits into the well-equipped classroom suite and set up for three hours of screening teeth for cavities and cleaning, checking for gum disease and oral cancer.

Minutes later, at 5:30 p.m., the Tunxis Dental Hygiene Clinic at the UConn Health Center greets the first of its 16 patients for the night.

Four times a week for the past 12 weeks - and with three weeks to go before finals - 70 hygienists-in-training give oral exams, cleanings and fluoride treatment to men, women and children in a kind of oral-hygiene barter exchange. The teaching clinic serves about 70 clients a week.

Clients, many of whom receive Medicaid or other public assistance, get preventive dental work at a fraction of the fee in a private dentist's office. Often, the clinic is the front line of overall preventive health care.

In addition to the Tunxis clinic, the hygiene students spend six days a week providing supervised dental hygiene services to a diverse clientele - many of whom rarely, if ever, visit a dentist or physician - at more than 15 community sites statewide. These include community-service organizations and nursing homes in Hartford, New Britain and Waterbury, as well as veterans hospitals and the Coast Guard Academy.

"Hopefully, we're filling a little bit of a void," said Julie A. Nocera of Middletown, a practicing hygienist for 29 years and a full-time Tunxis instructor for five years.

Meanwhile, the students, whose work in the UConn clinic is overseen by Nocera and a handful of other licensed hygienist instructors and an attending dentist, move one mouth at a time closer to joining the ranks of one of America's fastest-growing health professions.

"We get so much patient experience, I'm not afraid to go into private practice," said student Heidi Fayer, 25, of Thomaston, who will earn her associate degree in May. Fayer said she has taken the first of three exams to qualify for her hygienist's license.

"I've already gotten job offers," she said.

Students say the grueling workload - including class work and rotating weekly among dozens of community clinics and nursing homes honing their dexterity at maneuvering delicate tools in a confined space, as well as their chair-side manner - takes a toll.

"Time management is key," said Gail Swanson, 37, of Vernon, who returned to Tunxis for hygiene training after years managing a dentist's office.

The rewards are generous to those who persevere. Dental hygienists' pay ranged from $22 to $33 an hour in 2004, with top earners at more than $40 an hour, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

By 2015, America is projected to add 68,000 hygienists to the 120,000 it has now to serve a growing population that increasingly recognizes the value of oral health to overall wellness, said Marge Lappangreen, a Yorktown, Va., hygienist and president of the American Dental Hygienists Association.

"We're the front line as prevention specialists in helping people keep their health," said Lappangreen, who has been practicing since 1969.

Work hours are flexible, with 35-hour work weeks not uncommon, veterans say. Moreover, with workdays typically Monday through Friday, it's a career conducive to parents raising a family, they say.

Hygienist Jules Babcock switched from a career working in a hospital psychiatry ward to putting in 30 hours a week at a Wethersfield dentist office. The East Hampton mother says the short work week and good pay let her spend more time raising her son.

But the 2001 Tunxis hygiene program grad also tutors students four hours a week at the UConn clinic.

For many, the career perks aren't just about money. There is, they say, the opportunity to be on the front lines of Americans' blossoming awareness of the importance of oral health to overall wellbeing. Poor oral health is now linked to risks such as heart disease, diabetes and pre-term babies.

Hygienists now are trained to search in oral exams for such warning signs, including cancers of the mouth, head and neck. In the last three decades, hygienists have begun to play an increasing role alongside dentists in managing America's oral health care, observers say.

"There's a lot more responsibility on hygienists these days in helping the dentist educate the patient," said Dr. Amit Desai, a Cheshire dentist who tutors the Tunxis trainees.

Delegating more of the preventive dentistry chores - oral exams, cleanings and tooth sealings - to hygienists enables dentists to focus more on restorative work, such as fillings, crowns, root canals, and increasingly, cosmetic dentistry.

With support from dentists, there also has been a push, Lappangreen said, for a new classification - advanced dental hygienist - who can perform minimally invasive tooth drilling and filling procedures in communities with little or no access to dental care.

First-year student Lukasz Rulka of New Britain says he would consider returning to his native Poland to spread the notion of preventive oral hygiene. The 23-year-old says it's rare there.

"That kind of concerns me," Rulka said.

Preparing the next generation of hygienists is Tunxis' goal. The school estimates training more than 800 dental hygienists in the 25 years since its curriculum began.

Ginger Halle of Willington has access to private dental care, but the mother of five says the Tunxis clinic is the best way to get her four school-age kids' teeth cleaned at one time without any of them missing class.

It did not matter, Halle says, that this recent appointment for teeth cleanings for her children and her husband took 90 minutes - twice as long as a visit to their regular dentist. The $200 tab at Tunxis compares favorably with the more than $500 for a regular visit.

For more information about the Tunxis Dental Hygiene Clinic or to arrange an appointment, contact 860-255-3654.