In 2003, when my husband started freelancing, we lost our dental insurance. So we tried the U-M Dental Clinic, where charges are about half that of a private dentist.

Could we trust student dentists? We figured we’d switch back to a private dentist when we could. Before long, we were eligible for inexpensive dental insurance.

We’re still clinic patients.

Although treatment takes much longer—faculty dentists check progress at each stage—we enjoy students who share news about the latest dental innovations and answer questions about our teeth while waiting for a supervisor. With dentists who practice different specialties in the building, patients can get a second or third or fourth opinion quickly. Should I get a bridge or an implant to replace a missing tooth in an awkward space? Three dentists answer my question on the spot. 

Students work on model teeth for the better part of two years, attempting only cleanings before they fill a cavity or move to more complex tasks. Graduate students handle root canals and other specialties.

“The student-patient relationship is part of what makes the clinic special,” says DDS/PhD candidate Alexandra Herzog. After two years working on model teeth, “it’s the first time we get to take care of people.” | Photo: Mark Bialek

Clinic director Donald Heys says about 2,000 applications arrive for the 108 openings at the School of Dentistry; about a quarter are Michigan residents. Some applicants have degrees in dentistry and years of practice in other countries, enrolling only to meet U.S. certification requirements. Some come from other fields—recently they included an engineer, a helicopter operator, and an Army Ranger.

My current student dentist, Alexandra Herzog, majored in bio-chem at U-M and now is simultaneously pursuing a DDS and a PhD in oral cancer biology. She grew up in Germany, moving to Michigan with her family when she was a high-school junior.

“Most paths aren’t linear, and mine wasn’t either,” Herzog reflects. She loves working in research labs but after shadowing doctors and dentists, “I fell in love with dentistry. I love working with my hands … a mix of art, science, and engineering.

“The student-patient relationship is part of what makes the clinic special,” Herzog adds. “It’s the first time we get to take care of people.” She recalls a patient with special needs who had a traumatic brain injury as a teen. Herzog was warned this patient feared dentists and was given to crying. The first thing the patient said? “Please, no shot.” Herzog was nervous. “I knew I couldn’t do a crown prep without giving her an anesthetic … I reassured her we were going to do this as a team, one step at a time. I tried to be as comforting as I could. We made it through a couple of crowns—and no tears.”

“The general population doesn’t love going to the dentist,” Herzog knows. “In an area where people might feel uncomfortable, I can make a difference.” 

The faculty, mostly adjuncts who take time from more lucrative private practices to share their expertise with aspiring dentists, want to make a difference, too.

And says Dr. Heys, “patients get invested in their students.” Some, he suggests, want to make their students better dentists. “They want to help their students graduate.”