Changes and Celebration for Community Dental Clinic

student dentists in Community Dental Clinic

UCSF's student-run Community Dental Clinic has treated patients for 25 years. Photo by Susan Merrell

Arvin Pal

D3 student Arvin Pal

January 1993 saw the inauguration of Bill Clinton as president of the United States. Joe Montana had just played his last game for the San Francisco 49ers, and Barry Bonds was about to start his first season with his hometown team, the San Francisco Giants. Frank Jordan, a former police chief, was the city's mayor; and one of the biggest, most enduring problems the city faced was homelessness.

Against this backdrop, a handful of UCSF dental students and faculty began providing basic dental care - cleaning teeth, handing out toothbrushes - to destitute San Franciscans through referrals from Glide Memorial Church and other service organizations.

This was the modest start of the Community Dental Clinic. Twenty-five years later, the student-run organization has grown to be the largest of its kind in the United States, a full-service dental clinic open every Wednesday evening, often with more patients - and more volunteers - than it can accommodate.

One of those volunteers is Arvin Pal, a third-year dental student who has worked with the clinic since his first year in the School of Dentistry. Now nearing the end of his term as student director, Pal came into the position with some ideas for change.

"We didn't want to detract from the people we already were seeing, but we wanted to expand our patient base," Pal said. With the blessing of John D.B. Featherstone, dean emeritus of the school, and interim Dean Mark Kirkland, the clinic has welcomed undocumented immigrants, political refugees, and victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. All patients are accepted by agency referral only.

With a larger patient pool, increased capacity has become a more urgent need. Currently filling 16 treatment chairs available at the UCSF Dental Center Parnassus building, the clinic just received permission to access an additional four chairs, on a trial basis, in the periodontics clinic. With the additional chairs, the clinic could treat 20 or more patients each Wednesday.

The clinic may want for chairs, but not providers. "We've had to limit signups" from volunteers, Pal said - given their limitations, there routinely are more students who want to volunteer, than there are patients to treat.

One recent Wednesday saw 42 volunteers in the clinic, said Jeffory Eaton, DDS, clinic faculty adviser. "They span all four classes of the school," as well as faculty and residents, he said.

The impact they've had is impressive. The clinic currently provides some $100,000 in dental services - from general dentistry to specialties like endodontics and prosthodontics - each year, totaling more than $1 million over the clinic's lifetime.

"It's the most rewarding thing I've ever been involved in," said Dr. Eaton, who has been involved with the clinic for 24 of its 25 years. "Especially in these times… It just feels really good to help people."

Pal concurred.

"This experience has been the most memorable, most impactful in … my entire education," he said. He plans to continue community service after dental school, perhaps even spearheading a community clinic of his own.

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