Spring 2017

Magical Creatures Above

Look up! That’s the new directive in the dental clinic that treats Tufts’ youngest patients.

By Helene Ragovin

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When young patients in the eighth-floor pediatric clinic at One Kneeland Street lean back in their chairs, they’re likely to see monkeys, parrots or mermaids. The creatures, which appear on colorful ceiling tiles depicting underwater and jungle scenes, are there to provide a distraction during sometimes unfamiliar, or unwelcome, procedures.

Yet the youngsters may not be the only ones feeling ill at ease. For many dental students, treating children is a new experience, and not everyone knows how to talk with an anxious preschooler or strike up a conversation with a twitchy tween. “I remember myself as a dental student going into my pedo rotation and being very overwhelmed,” said Nour Gowharji, an assistant professor of pediatrics. “I didn’t know how to relate to children before that.”

That’s where the ceiling tiles come in. Created by Lizi Brown, a faculty member at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts who once trained as a dental assistant, the tiles have been installed in the Tufts pediatric clinic and in the dental clinic the school runs in Chinatown’s Josiah Quincy Elementary School.

The overhead artwork, along with matching coloring books for the waiting room, is part of a new approach for dental education. Over the past 40 or so years, the integration of art into health care has gained traction, and research has shown that thoughtful design elements can improve the well-being of patients, said Nancy Marks, the community service coordinator for the School of Dental Medicine. Some medical, nursing and pharmacy programs have been using art as part of student training, but Tufts is among the first to bring this idea to a dental school, she said.

The pediatric clinic seemed an ideal place to start. “We know there’s a fair amount of anxiety for students just going into the pediatric rotation,” Marks said. “The artwork can be a behavior-management tool, a way to build relationships, something to talk about with patients and start an age-appropriate conversation.”

Third-year students about to begin the rotation are receiving instruction on how to use the artwork.  At a training session last fall, the D18s in their dark teal scrubs filled Rachel’s Amphitheater to get a look at what their young patients will see. Then, they were asked to develop “conversation starters”— strategies to help the kids concentrate on something other than the feel of strange tools and fingers in their mouths. Some of the tiles have ocean themes, so for 4- to 6-year-olds, a simple question like “have you ever been in the ocean?” might be enough to get things stated. For slightly older kids, a good approach might be to ask them to make up a story about the overhead scene. Everyone acknowledged that the job gets harder as the patients get older, especially as they reach their teens.

“Not every child will respond, but it’s something you will have in your back pocket to complement the other tools you are going to learn,” said Kathryn Dolan, an assistant professor of public health.

For aspiring dentists, the whimsical scenes are also a reminder to keep the technical aspects of their work in perspective. “The patients love that we’re talking to them about something that’s not dental,” Gowharji said. “They don’t appreciate us talking about tooth number a, b or c, or where the caries are. That’s all irrelevant to them.

“In the end, the point is just to distract and find something to talk about,” she said. “The more of your personality you bring to the chair, the more your patients bring their personalities to the chair.”

Contact Helene Ragovin, the editor of this magazine, at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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