Rice Regional Dental Clinic opens its doors to dental students and patients

WILLMAR - Eric Unkenholz, a fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, has learned most of the essential skills he needs to become a dentist. Now he's experiencing the big picture -- knowledge, skills, teamwork -- fir...

WILLMAR - Eric Unkenholz, a fourth-year student at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, has learned most of the essential skills he needs to become a dentist. Now he's experiencing the big picture -- knowledge, skills, teamwork -- firsthand.

Unkenholz, who will be graduating next spring, is among the first group of dentistry students undergoing training at the newly opened Rice Regional Dental Clinic.

"It's great," he said. "It's nice to see new equipment and kind of get a taste of what private practice could be like. It'll be fun."

The program, a partnership between Rice Memorial Hospital and the University of Minnesota, officially opened this week. It has a twofold mission: to provide a site where dentistry and dental hygiene students can increase their hands-on skills while experiencing dental practice in a rural setting, and to improve overall regional access to dental care, especially for people who are low income or uninsured.

"It's new. There's not another clinic like this in the state," said Dr. Robert Erickson, the program director.


The regional dental clinic and training site has been months in the making.

More than $2 million -- virtually all of it from grants, as well as an allocation through the state of Minnesota's 2006 bonding bill -- was invested in building and equipping the clinic and covering its operating costs for the first three years.

Located on the third floor of Rice Memorial Hospital, the Rice Regional Dental Clinic contains the latest in equipment and technology, Erickson said.

"It's all state of the art," he said.

There are 10 dental chairs, including one that's specially designed with a lift for transferring patients who aren't mobile.

Fifteen computers and 22 monitors will give students a taste of how information technology is used in a dental clinic setting, as well as help the staff manage record-keeping and patient flow.

The program is still in the process of settling into its new home, Erickson said.

He came on board in September. Karen Carlson, the clinic's administrator, was hired shortly thereafter. The final two people on the clinic's seven-person staff will start next week.


When the program is up to full speed in January, it will have four dentistry students on site, each for a four-week rural rotation, and two dental hygiene students for a two-week rotation.

Erickson and the rest of the staff have been busy unpacking boxes and familiarizing themselves with the computer software and the daily routine.

"We're not on a full schedule of patients yet, but it's enough to get started and get our systems in place," Erickson said. "As we see patients, we're finding out what we still need to order. Every day there's something that comes up."

For the dentistry students, the training program in Willmar will be part of the outreach experience they gain during their final year at the university's School of Dentistry.

These students have already completed their classroom training, Erickson said.

What they'll be doing is honing their practical skills and improving their ability to think critically and solve problems, he said.

"A lot of times you don't get that in dental school. You're pretty much told what to do," he said. "For the most part the students really look forward to being in their outreach practice. They'll be doing what they learned in school but probably more of it. They'll be able to develop a treatment plan for all the patient's needs."

Unkenholz, who plans to practice dentistry in his hometown of Pierre, S.D., when he graduates, spent the past week at the Willmar training site and will return in January for the rest of the rotation.


He said he specifically opted for a rotation in Willmar "because of the setting. It's more like a general practice."

He's looking forward to the diverse population of children and adults the clinic will draw, as well as learning how to work with a dental team.

"It's working with patients more efficiently and improving your skills," he said.

The University of Minnesota operates a similar dental training site at a community college in Hibbing. The program at Rice Hospital is unique, however, in being affiliated with a hospital -- and is possibly one of the first models of its kind in the United States.

Ultimately, it's hoped that when students are exposed to dentistry in a rural setting, more of them will choose to practice in a rural community when they complete their training.

This is one of the reasons why Rice Hospital has been involved with the University of Minnesota in creating the Rice Regional Dental Clinic, said Lorry Massa, chief executive of Rice Hospital.

"While oral health is not traditionally thought of as a hospital-based service, we are seeing more and more rural hospitals getting involved as the shortage of dentists in rural Minnesota worsens," he said.

Weeks before the clinic opened, calls have been coming in from people who need dental care and can't obtain it, Erickson said.


Since his arrival in September, he has had numerous meetings with social service agencies, area nursing homes and providers of care to the developmentally disabled.

"We've let them know what our clinic is about and how they can go about making appointments," he said. "Every group we've talked to has been very supportive of the whole project and can't wait to start using it."

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