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School wins $1M grant for teledentistry project

The School of Dentistry has won a $1 million federal grant that will upgrade infrastructure for teledentistry in Washington and Montana and improve the school’s distance-learning capability.

The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) Telecommunications Program to the school’s Office of Regional Affairs and the Regional Initiatives in Dental Education (RIDE) program. It will be augmented by another $250,000 in matching funds from the UW’s Health Sciences Facilities and Administration office, which is collaborating on the project.

Distance-learning technology links dental students in Seattle to RIDE students at their Spokane hub on the Eastern Washington University campus.
Distance-learning technology links dental students in Seattle to RIDE students at their Spokane hub on the Eastern Washington University campus.

RIDE, which began in 2007, seeks to improve access to dental care in rural and underserved areas of Washington. Students in the program serve rotations in community clinics – a four-week rotation after their first year and a five-month rotation during their fourth year. The goal is to produce more dentists who will practice in these areas. To date, more than 75 percent of RIDE graduates are doing so, which is far above the national average for dental school graduates.

The program has a Spokane hub on the Eastern Washington University campus, where its students spend their first year before rejoining their Seattle classmates for their second and third years and part of their fourth. In Spokane, the students receive instruction not only from RIDE instructors there, but also in real time from the school’s Seattle faculty via a distance-learning network.

The RUS grant will be disbursed over three years for improvements including:

  • 12 chairside telemedicine carts equipped with two-way secure video conferencing, intraoral camera and computer for dental charting, images, and access to electronic health records. One will be at the UW and 11 will be at partnering rural and tribal community dental clinics in Washington and Montana.
  • Upgrades to the school’s simulation clinics in Seattle and Spokane. In these clinics, students practice on dental mannequins for two years before performing procedures on live patients.
  • Teleconferencing upgrades at the school.
  • New distance learning classrooms at the UW. At least two will be at the new $100 million Health Sciences Education Building, an integrated training facility that will serve all six UW Health Sciences schools. Construction recently began on the building, which is due to be completed by May 2022.

“This is an incredible opportunity to leverage support from the USDA to expand the school’s rural educational, teledentistry, and clinical service goals,” said Dr. Frank Roberts, Assistant Dean for Regional Affairs and director of the RIDE program. “This will especially provide new avenues of collaboration with our Eastern Washington RIDE dental partners.”

The new project will expand the Office of Regional Affairs’ distance learning and teledentistry footprint to 22 rural locations, 13 in Washington State and nine in Montana, including five tribal clinics. In partnership with Montana State University and Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services, UW dental students have been attending five-week clinical rotations in rural and tribal communities over the last five years, helping build a network of precepting clinics for future Montana RIDE expansion.

Montana has shown strong interest in such an expansion, and is already a partner in the UW School of Medicine’s WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho) regional medical education program.

RIDE was recognized in 2017 by the American Dental Education Association with its top honor, the William J. Gies Award, in the category of Vision by an Academic Dental Institution.