July 2, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 27


UW class helps next generation of health care providers understand the needs of homeless patients

From left, Natalie Dolci, a victim advocate from the University Police Dept., and Melisa Tumas, sexual assault and relationship violence specialist, speak to the Health and Homelessness class at the UW School of Dentistry.

Photo by Wes Sauer / Contributing Photographer

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A unique course offered through the University of Washington’s School of Dentistry teaches students how to better serve homeless people.

David Ludwig, a dental student, organized Health and Homelessness or ORALM 651, a lunchtime discussion-based class, with the help of faculty member Dr. Beatrice Gandara. It has been offered since the fall 2012.

As many as 60 students per term have enrolled in the course, making it one of the School of Dentistry’s more popular offerings. Students come from a range of disciplines, including public health, nursing, medicine, social work and dentistry. The issues they study vary, and topics are driven by the communities the students serve, Gandara said.

Discussions have included factors contributing to homelessness in Seattle and challenges homeless people face in finding shelter.

Eddy Skachkov said the course has allowed him to think in a broader perspective about homelessness.

Skachkov said now when he sees patients who are homeless, he considers the bigger issues at play: “How can I zoom out from looking at this person’s mouth and think about their overall health and the social factors that have brought them to where they are at now?”

Ludwig’s experiences working with underserved populations inspired him to create the course, which he hopes will help students treat patients who are homeless.

The dental school has a number of outreach projects, and Ludwig thought it would benefit everyone to learn more about homeless people.

Speakers span a wide range of experience and expertise. Subjects for discussion have included Advocacy and Public Policy, which was presented by Nancy Amidei, from the Civic Engagement Project - U District Conversation on Homelessness. Caleb Banta-Green from the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute presented on Drug Abuse and Harm Reduction.

The course has helped Skachkov think about the ways he will be able to work with homeless and low-income people in his career, perhaps by working at a community health center, he said.

Course requirements include a training session and six hours of participation in community outreach and volunteer work with the homeless population. Students often volunteer at Union Gospel Mission (UGM), which has an ongoing collaboration with the UW. In fact, students who want to volunteer are required to take this course.

Robert Dana, a resident at UGM for the past two months, has used the dental services several times.

“I really enjoy going down there because they make me feel special,” Dana said. “I really appreciate it.”

Clients of UGM generally have good feelings toward the clinic and the work students do, Dana said. People are excited to have chipped teeth repaired and show the work off proudly.

Dana said he has had some fillings and other work done and likes to joke around with the volunteers, something he feels comfortable doing because of the respect they show him.

Recently, George Sidwell and Buddy McArdle of Real Change’s Homeless Speakers Bureau spoke to the class and screened a documentary, “Real Change” that featured both of them.

Ludwig said he hopes this course will continue to help students understand the services available for folks who are homeless and motivate them to continue providing care when they become professionals. One goal he has hoped for is to bring in a dentist who sees homeless patients regularly to come speak about the experience.

Dental education is moving toward being more involved in the community, Gandara said, and she hopes this means treating homeless people will become a core part of the curriculum.



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