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Mile Square Dental Certificate Program Brings Access to Health Professional Pathways

seven young women of color posing together in front of a background wiht UI health logos on it

The Mile Square Health Center’s (MSHC) Dental Assistant Certificate Program truly embodies the UIC and UI Health mission of making a difference in people’s lives. The program is more than just an educational initiative, it’s a powerful means for community development and engagement. The program, which is offered nearly cost-free, provides education and experience for students interested in pursuing a health professions education – especially in oral health and dentistry.

A significant factor in the program’s enormous success is that it meets people where they live, and is administered at the Mile Square location in the Auburn Gresham Healthy Lifestyle Hub on Chicago’s south side. Central to Mile Square’s mission as a federally qualified health center, is the recognition that fostering relationships among the community is core to establishing trust with the neighborhoods that the clinics serve. The dental assistant program established and led by Dr. Sodabeh “Sue” Etminan, Dental Director for Mile Square, is currently overseeing the fifth cohort of dental assistant students, having recently graduated the fourth cohort of eight students earlier this fall.

The 12-week course consists of 32 hours of lectures, 70 hours of lab and hands-on training, and 40 hours of externship. Once students complete the 142 hours and have passed their exams, they earn a certificate in dental assisting. And that’s just the beginning. According to Dr. Etminan, “We do hire our graduates, but we don’t need as many assistants as we graduate. So, two weeks before graduation, we do a virtual job fair with local hospitals and health centers, and we actually end up seeing more jobs offered than assistants available through our program.” Supply has yet to meet demand.

photo of the recently rehabilitated four-story buiding on 79th street, with trees in the foreground

Dr. Etminan continued, “Because healthcare systems are so short-staffed right now, there is a job for everyone who completes the program. Through our job fairs attended by health care providers, we make sure that our students, if they want to continue in this career path, have an opportunity to do so in a way that suits their own aspirations.”

“As far as recruiting, we do so from the community. In fact, we just started a partnership with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), from where we are successfully drawing new students.” She went on: “The demand has been overwhelming. For the current cohort – 200 applications were received for eight positions.” The initial funding was provided by Delta Dental of Illinois (DDIL) and the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation (ILCHF). Continued funding for the certificate program has been generously provided by the ILCHF.

The direct impact this program has on individuals, their families, their neighborhoods and the city at large, goes beyond the provision of dental care. Graduates who have successfully completed the program present a great source of inspiration for those looking to make a change in their lives as well. “Often, our graduates want to move on and go to hygiene school; go to nursing school, whatever,” said Dr. Etminan. “And so even right now, I just found out that three of our assistants are leaving us. They were just accepted into four-year colleges. That’s very exciting!”

“Ultimately, it’s a win-win for everyone. Our clinic is so busy, we have a wait list. And this program helps us because we have more staff now. We can open additional hours like evenings and weekends, so we are able to offer even more access to care for our patients.” Dr. Etminan added that she herself began as a dental assistant before going to dental school.

the Mile Square South Shore facility on a sunny day, showing the large UI health logo on the front of the buiding

Similarly, Latasha Tucker, a current dental assistant at the MSHC South Shore clinic, spoke very passionately about her experience. “I feel that the biggest and most rewarding part of our job is knowing that the patients trust us and rely on us for comfort and for not judging them, she said. “Most patients might not be comfortable at first or a little reluctant because of personal insecurities that have built up over years, so we help ease that fear.”

Tucker continued, “A big plus is that I live in the area in which our clinics are located so even when I am not at work, I see my patients at the store or even on the streets, and so we have built a relationship of trust that has been missing in their experiences with the health care system. Patients have been so kind in letting us know how much they appreciate us, how we treated them with care and respect, and how we fixed their smile, so now their self-esteem is high. This is what giving back to the community means and it just fills me with so much joy.”

When asked about the range of services provided and their patient demographics, Dr. Etminan shared that their services cover many critical needs. Mile Square has a pediatric dentist on staff. They also offer nitrous sedation, crowns and dentures. Additionally, they have a cancer survivorship program for all UI Health cancer patients offering them free dental care at the clinic. They also receive patients from other community health centers because of Mile Square’s continually expanding scope of care. An example of the team’s deep understanding of the lack of basic services in the communities that surround them, the department had started a food pantry for people in need during the COVID-19 crisis.

As a whole, the Mile Square Dental Assistant Certificate Program serves as a model community-focused program that listens to the needs of our local neighborhoods and develops real-time solutions to benefit the lives of our communities across Chicago and beyond. Through providing pathway opportunities for community members, to offering trusted healthcare services for patients in need, this program is making a difference.

Photos from the Graduation Celebration Heading link

  1. Phyllis Grice MSN, RN, MSHC chief operating officer; Henry Taylor, MPA. MSHA president and chief executive officer; Richard R. Boykin, JD, former Cook County commissioner; and ____???????