The skills to drill

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 28, 2007 - 7:11 PM

Call it Drilling for Dummies: A new U of M dental lab lets students practice on mannequins before they try their hand at real people.

Sitting in the dental chair, it's sometimes easy to feel like your mouth is being treated like some sort of home improvement project. There's poking and prodding and it can seem that there's a whole lot of drilling going on.

Going to the dentist is rarely on anybody's list of favorite things, so the University of Minnesota dental school is trying to make sure that its graduates are more proficient with the drill.

This year, the school is opening a $9.5 million simulation clinic that will be used heavily by students in their first two years of the four-year program. The hope is that students will get a better idea of what to expect when they begin working with live patients during their third year of dental school.

The key addition is a lab in which students can work on mannequins that are outfitted with virtual-reality-based technology. It's a significant upgrade from the old "teeth-on-a-stick" system, wherein students worked on a set of teeth that lacked a head or moveable cheeks and lips.

On the simulated patients, a computer tracks the movement of a student's drill while measuring just how much of the tooth is being removed on the computer screen in front of them.

There, the student can see how this drill work compares with an ideal cut, both in shape and in depth. And instead of having to wait to be graded by a faculty member, the students get instant feedback from the computer.

"They can see when they colored outside the lines, so to speak," said Dr. Judith Buchanan, associate dean for academic affairs in the dental school.

'It's incredibly detailed'

Fourth-year dental student Mohit Sharda gave the simulator a test drive Wednesday.

"It's the closest you can get to a real patient," Sharda said. "And the good thing is that if you mess up, you can take the tooth out and put a new one in."

In addition, the simulator quickly points out when a student does the wrong thing. If the drill goes too deep, the machine beeps. If the student sits incorrectly or leans too much on the mannequin's head, another beep is heard.

"It's really cool," said second-year dental student Nathan Porath. "It's a lot less subjective than a professor looking over your shoulder and it's incredibly detailed."

While dentistry is certainly science-heavy, it also requires dexterity and practice. The new lab will allow students to practice as part of class sessions and on their own time.

"I believe it will be a very good confidence boost," Sharda said. "By the time [younger students] get into clinicals, they're going to be much more confident in making preparations [for fillings]."

Dental school dean Dr. Patrick Lloyd said that some dental schools that already have simulation units in place find that students learn more quickly. If that holds true, the hope is that students will get to spend more time in clinical settings and working on patients before graduation and will get schooling in more advanced techniques.

"They will have refined their drilling proficiency," Lloyd said, "and they can spend more time focussing on the peripheral needs of the patient and they'll have more confidence."

Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478

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