As reported by the Bristol Press, July 7, 2008.

Tunxis Takes Calls for Dental Work

By Jackie Majerus

FARMINGTON — The 70 students studying to become dental hygienists at Tunxis Community College are doing more than advancing their careers.

They’re providing low-cost — and sometimes free — dental care to those in need.

In addition to staffing community clinics in New Britain, Hartford, Waterbury, Middletown, Willimantic and New London, the students see people at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, said Mary Bencivengo, director of allied health programs at Tunxis.

At the health center, the students see 15 to 20 patients each night in appointments that include an exam and x-rays, periodontal assessments, cleaning, fluoride treatments and sealants.

The sessions are long, Bencivengo said, and most people need two visits to complete the work because the students are training.

“These are students,” she said. “The appointments are three to four hours.”

The exam is done by a dentist employed by the program and all the work of the students is supervised by faculty.

Appointments cost $40 per patient, and are open to anyone. The students also treat children, Bencivengo said.

Though they don’t do fillings on cavities or other corrective work, Bencivengo said the program can help get people in touch with someone else who can help.

Most of the people who come to the health center for the dental clinic are underserved, Bencivengo said, and either don’t have dental insurance or can’t afford to pay for treatment themselves.

Though some might put off dental care because of a lack of funds, Bencivengo said good oral health is crucial for the entire body.

There are many links between poor oral health and serious medical conditions in the body, she said.

“There’s a lot of neglect, dental neglect,” said Bencivengo. “It’s really an important part of overall health.”

Tunxis is scheduling appointments now for September, when students return.

She said there has been a lull in the number of inquiries lately.

“Calls have dropped off,” said Melissa Lamar, a Tunxis spokeswoman. “People forget about it. We need to remind them that it’s here.”

Bencivengo said the Tunxis dental program, which gives graduates an associate degree, is the only one like it in Connecticut’s community -college system.

Competition is tough for students who want to enter the program, Bencivengo said, adding that for every four or five applicants, just one student is admitted.

“All of these people are on the ball,” said Bencivengo.

Last year, students treated about three dozen migrant workers on a single Friday night, Bencivengo said. She said it was an all-volunteer effort, and provided for many of the workers, who came from Latin America, their first professional dental visit. The students found follow-up care for the migrants, Bencivengo said, and prepared dental-care kits for each patient as well as an educational presentation in Spanish on dental care.

In the spring students competed for three slots on an outreach trip to the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota, said Bencivengo. She said the three students traveled with three faculty members to the Cheyenne River Reservation and spent a week treating 200 children.

In the evening, after a long day at the clinic, the American Indian hosts shared their culture with the visitors.

“That was a great experience,” Bencivengo said.

By the time they’re halfway through the four-semester program, Bencivengo said, the students are doing about 16 hours of patient care a week in addition to coursework and labs.

There is a new, high-tech lab at Tunxis with dental chairs, but the students don’t see patients there, Bencivengo said. Instead, they’re learning on each other there.

“It’s students treating students,” she said, “as part of the pre-clinical experience.”

About a quarter of the applicants in the last few years have entered the program already having earned an undergraduate degree and are retraining for a new career.

Bencivengo said the shortage of workers in the health field helps the graduates find jobs. She claimed a 100 percent employment rate among the new dental hygienists.

“They all get jobs,” she said. “The shortage is only going to get increasingly worse.”

To schedule an appointment for the dental clinic, call Tunxis at (860) 255-3654.