M. Terry / SFVS

UCLA Dental School professors Dr. Bill Piskorowski and Dr. Lisa Nguyen. 

Dr. Bill Piskorowski, a professor at the school of dentistry at UCLA, thinks too many people don’t go to see dentists because of fear of pain or insufficient levels of insurance. Or they believe that too many dentists in private practice are only interested in maximizing the dollars needed to provide a service.

He wants to change those perceptions.

Piskorowski brought with him from the University of Michigan a program he developed at the university’s dental school, where students are contracted to work in community- or clinically-based dental offices.

“The program is aimed primarily for disadvantaged areas or locations that had few available dentists. We primarily focus on federally-qualified health centers, the centers created under the Affordable Care Act, because there’s 1,400 of those nationwide and 144 in the state of California. Unfortunately only about a third of them have dental,” Piskorowski said.

The working students can provide a full range of dental services at a lower cost. Piskorowski said their services are available to anyone. 

Another aspect of the program is to point students toward doing more dental care in smaller communities and cities where they are needed instead of rushing right into a potentially more lucrative private practice upon graduation.

He understands that dentistry students can feel crushed under the weight of debt, fearing it might take 20 years or more to pay back the loans to cover the cost of their education and residency training despite an average salary of nearly $143,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Piskorowski said being involved in the health care industry is as much about public service as it is about having a large profit margin.

Creating a new generation of dentists more interested in performing community-based or clinically-based care  is paramount. Piskorowski believes this generation of students, Generation Z, could be willing to follow that path.

“Not only is this generation more apt (to do so), they see the value in serving their communities,” Piskorowski said. “Dental school is so difficult the first two years, that a lot of people lose track of why they wanted to become a health care professional. By opening their eyes with the experiences in community clinics, we are teaching them an ethic of caring and re-energizing them to their original mission.”

This is the first year of the program at UCLA. Piskorowski is anticipating a similar success rate to the one achieved at Michigan.

“When I first started the program, only 2 percent of the students were going into public health after graduation, as the national average,” Piskorowski said. “In Michigan, when I left, 22 percent of the graduating class went on to public health because we had opened their eyes to an experience in that venue.”

It is also important, he said, that adults and children do more preventive dental care, including getting regular checkups and teeth cleanings. That parents make routine dental care a part of their children’s lifestyle. It can increase the chances of avoiding a potential problem where a procedural cost can become astronomical.

“I can show you some (American Dental Association) studies that say the number one fear is actually pain [caused from a dental visit],” Piskorowski said. “Money is another factor. The fear of the unknown is another factor.

“I just want to see people go get their teeth cleaned twice a year, and have good preventive maintenance. Because if they follow the standard protocol, that would be a wonderful [way] for them to [handle] most problems.”