student Rosemary Chu with patient in clinical setting

What's it like returning to clinics? U of T Dentistry students say it's a "thrill"

While most courses across the University of Toronto will be held remotely this fall, some, like Dentistry’s clinical components, need to be held in person. So, after months of near total shutdown, students and their patients at the Faculty of Dentistry clinics are back — and delighted to be so. The school’s graduate specialty clinics began slowly reopening on July 6, while undergraduate DDS students transitioning from year three to year four resumed seeing a backlog of patients as of August 4th. The staggered reopening has involved a number of important adjustments, including a reduction of patient capacity and implementing new health and safety protocols.

Despite the pandemic and its continued effects on her educational experience, fourth year student and Dental Students’ Society president Susie Son says she and her fellow classmates are “very thankful” to return to clinics. “We want to be able to train and practice as much as we can before we graduate.”

"Coming back to clinics is a challenge I'm willing to [under]take because I just love this profession so much"

So far, Son says, it’s been an “unexpected, thrilling” experience as she and her classmates perform many procedures for the first time. And while the class overall feels “rusty,” having been out of clinic for so long, Son says that instructors and patients have been “very understanding and patient.”

Starting in September, the Faculty will be ramping up to 50 per cent of its former clinical capacity for the patients of the DDS students, which will involve even more changes to scheduling and student rotations, to keep the entire community safe while still providing the students the experience they need. Students will also have extended clinical hours on some days, allowing them to maximize the amount of clinical time they have over the school year, and the number of patients they can treat.

New infection control and PPE standards are taking more time, says Son, but students are very conscious of their importance. Those heading back to clinics have undergone additional training, including an entire COVID-19 curriculum, which was developed in conjunction with the other health faculties at the University of Toronto. “The most important part is [donning and] doffing the PPEs,” says Son. “I want to ensure I don’t contaminate anything.”

The new safety protocols are helping patients feel safer, too. While a few patients have expressed concerns about safety during COVID, the vast majority, says Sonia Huang, first year resident in the graduate specialty program in periodontics, are “so, so grateful to be back.” In the Oral Reconstruction Clinic (ORC), where she has been since August, residents are busy restoring implant-supported crowns, and adjusting and inserting dentures. “Some have been missing teeth for four plus months,” she says, adding that being back has led to very positive experiences for both patients and their caregivers. Huang, who was the U of T Dentistry 2020 Bourassa Cup recipient, will also work in the Grad Perio clinic next month.

"Being able to go back to clinic and see patients made me realize I am on the right path"

And while there are continued limitations —due to COVID, for instance, Son notes that she and her fellow students are restricted from gathering together at the clinics — the passion for their profession remains as strong as ever.

“I’ve always wanted to be a dentist,” says Son. “There will be many instances of uncertainty but coming back to clinics is a challenge I'm willing to [under]take because I just love this profession so much.”

That sentiment has only grown for Huang. “Being able to go back to clinic and see patients made me realize I am on the right path. I’m very excited to move forward,” she says.

Photo: Student Rosemary Chu with patient (Jeff Comber)