Recession has dental schools filling gaps in tooth care

Real teeth are the best training for aspiring dentists, so who wants to offer up theirs for some practice runs? Anyone? Anyone?

At Nova Southeastern University's College of Dental Medicine, the line to be treated by student dentists is, perhaps surprisingly, quite long. These dentists don't yet have fancy medical degrees hanging on the wall, but they come cheap — performing services at roughly one-third to one-half the cost of a private-practice facility.

That deep discount, coupled with the tight-budget realities of the recession, has led demand for Nova's student dentists to more than triple in the past year. The university runs a 100-chair clinic at its main Davie Campus, as well as a 30-chair clinic in North Miami Beach.

In April 2008, 584 prospective patients showed up for one of Nova's open enrollment periods. A year later, that number had swelled to 1,797. The next open enrollment period is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 24.

"I've had extensive work in here," said patient Dale Morrell, 54, of Oakland Park. Prior to seeing Nova's dentists-in-training, Morrell said his teeth suffered from "a lot of neglect."

"I was going to a dentist, but cost-wise you couldn't go as much as you needed to go," said Morrell, who runs an irrigation business.

In cases like Morrell's, Nova students are happy to fill the void.

"Dealing with actual people helps you with your people skills," said student Benton Perry, 28. "They have saliva, they have teeth that aren't perfect."

They also wriggle in their chair and – unlike the toothy mannequins that students start out with – real people occasionally complain. But part of being a good dentist is learning how to win over difficult patients.

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