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Arda Guiragossian working on a dental patient.

University dental student Ena Lee (left) observes Arda Guiragossian from Syria as she practices contemporary dentistry techniques at the U's Dental School.

Science with a smile

U's esthetic dentistry program draws worldwide attention

By Patricia Kelly

From eNews, September 27, 2007

"I'm just a big sponge for learning," says Benjamin Boublil with a grin. Boublil has left his busy dental practice in Paris to attend the Level I course of the University of Minnesota Dental School's Postgraduate Program in Esthetic Dentistry. "This course has covered things that I thought I knew, things that I forgot, things that I didn't know," he says. "This is solid education--and you can't find it anywhere in the world except here."

Boublil's office for the evening is a tiny cubicle on the eighth floor of Moos Tower on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis that's stocked with the latest dental materials, a computer, and a most agreeable mannequin, of whose teeth he will soon make an impression.

A voice booms out suddenly, telling the students to watch their computer screens and follow along. Boublil grabs his drill. It's time to go to work.

The voice belongs to Paul Olin, who has directed the esthetic dentistry program for most of its 11 years. The program began in 1996 with Level I, comprising 100 hours of lecture, lab, and clinic work, given over four weekends in six months to minimize the participants' time away from their dental practices. Level II, comprising another 100 hours and actual work on patients, began in 1997. A year later, Level III was added, through which dentists complete 10 modules for another 300 hours of training, a research paper, and other requirements to earn a postgraduate certificate in contemporary restorative and esthetic dentistry from the University of Minnesota Continuing Dental Education.

Today, dentists from all over the world travel to the University of Minnesota to learn from a large faculty of distinguished speakers. Some participants have been out of school for 30 years; others, for only a few. Even recent dental school graduates come to study complex smile "design," gaining valuable, hands-on experience in techniques too new to have been covered thoroughly in dental school. Using the latest materials, they learn to create state-of-the-art implants, porcelain veneers, bonded restorations, and fiber-reinforced composite bridges.

The University's program receives donations of materials from as many as 20 different companies. Lynda Young, director of the Continuing Dental Education program for the School of Dentistry, says that the program's unbiased presentation of materials and technologies makes it unique. "You receive information based in true science, rather than someone trying to sell you their particular product," she says.

To date, participating dentists have come from 14 countries and U.S. 28 states. "They're at different skill levels and have different goals," Young says. "But they're all highly motivated and willing to spend the time and money to make sure they are out in front--and there's a lot of courage involved in that."

Olin says the "tremendous demand" for training in contemporary dentistry is largely patient-driven. "It has to do with the increased discretionary income of patients--and Hollywood makeovers on TV," he says. "Esthetic dentistry has been marketed to the public via cable television. When I was in dental school, I never would have dreamed that people would pay hundreds of dollars to whiten their teeth!"

Hollywood tales aside, the case studies that Olin shares during the lecture have little to do with vanity and everything to do with restoring healthy smiles to patients who suffer from cancer, accidental trauma, and disease. He tells of a man who was jacking up a car when the jack snapped and knocked out most of his teeth. He tells of a young teenager who was babysitting when the child found a handgun and shot off half of the teenager's lower jaw. And he tells of "Angie," whom he began treating in 1994. Angie suffered from ectodermal dysplasia, a congenital disease that prevents the formation of most or all permanent teeth and causes the baby teeth to become mobile, painful, and to eventually require extraction. By 1997, Angie had a beautiful new smile, just in time for her senior high school photos.

"Everyone does a tooth here and there," Young says. "But these courses enable the dentists to treat cases that involve the entire smile. They'll go back to their practices and deliver a higher level of care to all their patients."