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October 15, 2010

ULM's Mobile Dental Hygiene Unit rolls into service at local elementary school

On a recent sunny October afternoon, Jordan Williams, a clinical instructor in ULM's department of dental hygiene, assisted a student diligently working with a handheld device designed to capture X-ray images of a young patient's teeth.

As she carefully held the device next to the young girl's left cheek, Natalie Ward, a senior dental hygiene major at ULM, was facing some "firsts" this particular October day – firsts that will have to be performed well in order for her to graduate next spring. It was her first attempt at using the new handheld device, called a Nomad, and it was her first time to serve a clinical rotation in ULM's new Mobile Dental Hygiene Unit.

"Make sure the patient closes down completely," Williams instructed Ward, as an image of the young patient's teeth and part of the underlying bone appeared on a nearby computer screen.

Ward, 23, of Pine Bluff, Ark., was delivering care to a fifth-grade student who is joining hundreds more from Jack Hayes Elementary in Monroe. All will receive free treatment this fall without ever having to leave the elementary school campus, as Williams leads a team of 21 senior students through a rotation utilizing the Mobile Dental Hygiene Unit for the first time this semester.

But just because the clinic is mobile and the treatment is free doesn't mean it is substandard. The state-of-the-art unit is equipped with all the technology one would expect from any regular clinic and the patients are receiving most of the same services as they would receive from a stand-alone clinic, including a review of their health histories, examination of the oral cavity, teeth cleaning, oral health care instruction, dietary counseling, and patient education.

The new unit has the potential to reach hundreds of Louisianans, young and old alike, who do not receive regular dental care due to barriers related to affordability and accessibility, according to College of Health Sciences Dean Dr. Denny Ryman.

Ryman said the unit provides accessibility directly to those areas where services are most needed and could be the only way many segments of the population will get the care and treatment they need.

"The unit is enhancing the clinical experiences of ULM's dental hygiene students by presenting opportunities to practice on a wide array of patients, setting apart the education these students are receiving as among the best in the nation," said Ryman.

In addition to dental hygiene students, the unit is staffed by dental hygiene faculty, including dentists, to ensure every patient who enters is receiving top-notch care, according to Ryman.

Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals studies consistently represent the oral health of Louisianans, especially children, as being in a "state of crisis." A recent report noted some progress, though there still exists an unequal distribution of dentists in the state, especially in rural areas. Ryman is certain the mobile unit is a huge part of the solution to a long-run problem in the state and, with assistance from several faculty, he was able to extend his conviction to state and national delegates, who descended on the ULM campus last spring to help unveil the new unit.

Under Senator Mary L. Landrieu's leadership, D-La., and with support from Congressman Rodney Alexander, R-La., the delegates steered an appropriations bill through Congress and to President Obama's desk for signing that included funding for the 42-foot long, fully equipped unit. The federal appropriations allocation of $471,420 was directed to the ULM College of Health Sciences.

Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, a ULM alum, also committed $90,000 in operational funds on behalf of the city and its council members.

"Dental coverage can be expensive and hard to come by … for this university to meet this challenge, I'm proud to have directed money in this way," said Landrieu, last May at the unveiling, as she noted the dental hygiene program's 100 percent graduation rate for the last decade.

At the May unveiling, Congressman Alexander echoed those sentiments as he reminded attendees that the new unit should help address the myriad of dental issues facing one in every five children in the ninth poorest district in the nation.

"When good people do good things, good things happen," said Alexander, nodding toward the new unit. "This is good."

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