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Dentists obviously are accustomed to working in tight spaces. After all, the average human mouth is only about 2 inches wide. Still, a little extra room is always appreciated, especially for student dentists who are learning the craft.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry is providing the space for students to grow their dental skills, thanks to a recently completed expansion of the first-floor portion of the Comprehensive Care Clinic. The multidisciplinary, faculty-supervised clinic is where third- and fourth-year students provide general, cosmetic and operative dentistry services to patients. Along with other enhancements, the project added 40 new dental chairs on top of the already 76 chair Comprehensive Care Clinic on second floor. The space was redesigned with an open concept in mind that makes the dental team more accessible and approachable to patients, while also providing aspects that enhance patient privacy.

“One of the strengths of our program is that students gain experience doing a lot of actual dentistry on actual patients,” says SOD assistant professor Jennifer Wadiak, D.D.S., the director of the Comprehensive Care Clinic. “But because we have limited space, not everybody can be in the clinic at the same time, and we have students on waiting lists for chairs every day.

“This expansion is increasing the number of students we can have working in the clinic at one time. It will allow them to be exposed to more patients and more procedures, which will make them a stronger graduate when they leave here. It’s also just a beautiful facility. It’s a source of pride for all of us to be able to treat patients in there.”

The expansion of the Comprehensive Care Clinic is one part of a larger renovation of the SOD facilities that includes improvements to the spaces for walk-in emergency patients, treatment planning, waiting rooms, business office space, and office areas. But it is the increase in clinic dental chairs that is expected to have the most direct impact on SOD students.

“This will relieve much of the pressure that students have had in being limited by the number of chairs,” says SOD Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs Daniel Givan, D.M.D., Ph.D. “They’ll be working in a comfortable, modern facility that gives them the opportunity to perform excellence for their patients. They will have all the elements needed to move forward in their training.”

That is important, because there is a shortage of practicing dentists in Alabama to meet the overall need, especially in rural areas. As of January 2022, Alabama had an average of only 41 dentists per 100,000 population, the lowest number in the nation (the national average was 61).

Wadiak says the clinic expansion is one of the reasons the SOD currently is able to increase its class size, enabling the school to produce more young dentists at a time when they are urgently needed. This year’s incoming class is one of the largest in school history.

“The expansion of this clinic and the ability to offer services to more patients really is in line with the school’s commitment to public health and access to dental care,” Wadiak says. “And we’re hitting it at both ends. We’re admitting more students, so we’re going to turn out more dentists, which will help the state overall. But it also has an immediate impact, because our patients will be seen a little faster.

“Our ability to get patients in faster and more conveniently is really important. We’re answering the call for what is a public-health issue.”

And more improvements are on the way, as the SOD expects to open a new centralized sterilization area in the building by early next year. Givan says the facility initially will be utilized only by the Comprehensive Care Clinic, but the long-range goal is for it to eventually serve the entire SOD.

“It will be modernized to meet all the criteria and guidelines from OSHA, the CDC and other regulatory bodies for sterilization and infection control,” Givan says. “We’ll start using it first with the clinic, and then grow it from there.”

All of which, Wadiak says, is part of the main objective for the UAB School of Dentistry to graduate more – and even better – dentists in the coming years.

“This expansion is really exciting, because we all share a common goal of wanting to expose our students not only to many different types of procedures in dentistry, but also to repetition,” Wadiak says. “That’s what makes you a better dentist. The more you do something, the better and more efficient you get at it. This will give us the ability to push our students a little more. So when they graduate, we know they’re going to be able to go out and practice quality dentistry.”

The Comprehensive Care Clinic is currently accepting new patients. Patients are accepted with or without insurance, but the School of Dentistry is a preferred provider for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama and METLIFE; Medicaid and Medicare is accepted for approved dental services. Services can cost up to 50 percent less than those of other providers in the community, which makes the School of Dentistry a great fit for self-pay patients or those who want to stretch insurance dollars.

Prospective and existing patients can call 205-934-2700 to schedule a screening appointment or return visit.