By Kyle Rogers

For Houston’s East End residents, the Hispanic Student Dental Association (HSDA) at UTHealth School of Dentistry has been providing quality, low-cost care for over a decade through its partnership with El Centro de Corazón.

Over 500 patients have received $75,000 in total estimated care from HSDA members since 2010 at El Centro’s Telephone Road location.

HSDA members provide care to East End residents at El Centro de Corazón.

Averaging six Saturday visits each year, students see between eight to 10 patients from 8 a.m. to noon, providing preventive and limited restorative dental care and oral hygiene instruction.

To maximize use of the facility’s three operatories, students come in groups of six, typically three upperclassmen to deliver care and three underclassmen to assist. Furthermore, dates are designated as “dental days” and “dental hygiene days.” On dental days, services cost $10 per tooth for restorations or extractions, whereas hygiene days are $10 per appointment for cleanings and fluoride varnish applications.

The reduced prices are reasonable for patients who live on a limited income, work for a low wage, or are senior citizens.

The services however weren’t how the connection between HSDA and El Centro began. Originally, HSDA held educational days, with students providing oral hygiene instruction and nutritional counseling.

For Margo Melchor, RDH, EdD, director of community outreach, she recalls how a simple conversation with El Centro’s Dental Director Heather Dent, DDS, helped launch a partnership.

“One day, Dr. Dent and I discussed how El Centro offered medical services on weekends, but they didn’t have any dental opportunities,”

HSDA members provide care to Houston’s East End residents.

Melchor said. “Our students are always looking for weekend outreach activities, so we explored getting the necessary credentialing agreements to allow UTSD to help.”

With proper guidelines in place, student care is provided under the UTSD supervision of either Melchor or H. Philip Pierpont, DDS, both HSDA co-faculty advisors credentialed through El Centro, and in the attendance of Dent.

“It’s been a great opportunity for students to continue to gain clinical experience and provide care outside of the school,” said Melchor. “They get the chance to give back to the community, in addition to being able to work on their Spanish. Not all of our members are fluent, so this is great real-world practice in dealing with a language barrier.”

For the East End community, this care has been a welcomed relief.

“Most of our patients work in positions where they don’t have paid time off, so Saturday care is extremely beneficial for them,” Dent said. “The services provided from HSDA members have meant so much to this community. Every time the students come, their patients are so grateful and very happy with the care they’re receiving.”

One patient said, “The students were great and very thorough. You can’t beat the price for treatment.”

Over the years, Dent has noticed many of their patients have come back.

“We’ve had multiple patients who’ve come repeatedly throughout the length of this partnership,” she said. “They’ll come to a hygiene day for a cleaning and then come back on a dental day for a restoration.”

The Saturday experience has been just as beneficial for HSDA members. Similar to UTSD’s off-site rotations, students are exposed to and practice with different instruments and materials from those found inside a school setting. In addition, they’re provided a different point of view to dental practice.

“Volunteering helps students get a better idea of where they want to focus their care after graduating,” Pierpont said. “Outside of private practice, there’s opportunities to work community practice, public health care, or even just being involved in a community health center.”

Pierpont calls volunteering “hearts-on service” and believes there’s a personal satisfaction in helping others.

“Winston Churchill once said, ‘We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.’ I think a lot of students come to UTSD with a desire to give back, and I’ve been happy to help facilitate HSDA’s community service efforts,” said Pierpont.

Ten years in, that desire to give back is something both HSDA and El Centro hope to continue with the partnership for years to come.