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Dental students learn empathy through simulation

Grant-funded project helps College of Dentistry students better serve patients with disabilities

“I created my own suit, if you will,” said Simmi Patel, DDS, opening a duffel bag full of supplies. “It’s all to show that when we have patients with disabilities, we need to rethink our instructions with them.”

Patel, a clinical assistant professor in the public health sciences department at the Texas A&M University College of Dentistry, has spent the past year and a half on a unique project in the college’s community clinics. Thanks to a grant she received in December 2020, she is using these supplies to provide empathy training to dental students.

The clinics see many patients who operate with disabilities, she said, and she has been trying to teach students more about how living with these disabilities can feel.

The “suit” Patel assembled includes a weighted vest, boots that make walking difficult, headphones that can simulate the ringing of tinnitus, gloves that give small electric shocks to simulate tremors, a neck brace, and several different types of glasses to simulate cataracts and other conditions that impair eyesight. Students put on this outfit and then attempt to complete a series of daily tasks, such as buttoning a shirt, that someone would otherwise consider simple.

“This is a different way of learning: learning via personal experience,” Patel said.

She explains that sometimes people do not consider how a simple task can be made very difficult due to personal disabilities. This training helps students better understand what it’s like for some patients and imparts a mindset of trying to create solutions. She mentioned one patient who struggled to pick up and hold a toothbrush and solved this problem with the help of a dental hygienist who cut slits into a tennis ball and slid it onto the brush handle to make it easier for them to hold.

“When you can connect with your patient, that’s what makes you stand out from the dentist across the street,” Patel said.

woman wears goggles, a weighted vest, headphones, gloves and weighted shoes
Rosa Bahrevar, dental assistant at North Dallas Shared Ministries, wears Dr. Patel’s suit that can simulate a variety of disabilities.

Inspiration for this empathy training came from various sources. Patel said she first heard about the tremor simulator from Timothy Lukavsky, DDS, and Maureen Perry, DDS, MPA, MAEd, from A.T. Still University in Arizona. Unfortunately, Lukavsky succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, in December 2021 after a hard fight. After further research Patel found several other kinds of simulators. She points to experiences with her own mother as inspiration.

“The reason I wrote the grant is because of my mom, who has Parkinson’s disease,” Patel said. “She was very independent and has been living with the disease since 2004. I have had the opportunity to take care of her. In 2018, her disease sent her to a short-term nursing home. I used to care for her on the weekends. In the nursing home, my friend who is a nurse was taking care of her grandfather next door. I remember complaining to her how hard it was to take care of my mom. She reminded me how hard it was for my mom to ask for help, especially because she used to be very independent.”

The grant for this program was originally for one year, but Patel received an extension due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She hopes to wrap things up this year, with 100 students having undergone the empathy training. As of now she’s at 59 students and is confident she can find the other 41 soon. She also adds that, once this grant is complete, she hopes to expand her program into a selective course for the college.

“This grant is dedicated to anyone who is suffering,” Patel said. “I hope that we can empathize with individuals afflicted with various medical conditions or disabilities and find innovative solutions to make daily tasks easier for them.”

This story by Caleb Vierkant originally appeared on Dentistry News.

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