The one thing you need to know about Harvard School of Dental Medicine

academic advice curriculum dental school
By Jen B.

If you are planning on applying to dental school, you should be aware of how different schools structure their program. It wasn’t until I got to the interview process that I realized how little I knew about the variations in dental curriculum across schools. I was surprised to find out that Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) is one of the few schools where the dental students are fully integrated into the medical school their first year. Unlike other schools where dental students might take a few shared classes like anatomy, HSDM students are fully integrated into the medical school, so much so that even our white coats say “Harvard Medical School."

Why is HSDM integrated with HMS?

At first, this integration may seem strange and unnecessary: a year is a long time for dental students to spend "outside" of the dental school. However, if you consider dentistry as a specialty in medicine, then it makes perfect sense. The mouth is an integral part of the body, with oral care being just as important has seeing her primary care doctor each year. If you’ve ever had a toothache, you can agree that even the smallest pain can disrupt every aspect of your day. That is why HSDM believes their students should spend their first year of training learning the body holistically, so they can better serve their patients. 

What does the first year in medical school (as a dental student) look like?

The medical school courses are set up in different blocks with classes Monday through Friday except on Wednesdays. I won’t spend too much time on the nuts and bolts of course work, but the first class focuses on foundational science, such as anatomy, biochemistry, or microbiology. Then, there is a shorter course on dermatology and infectious diseases. That progresses into more specialized courses focusing on the heart, lungs, kidney, and more.

Wednesdays are split up into morning and afternoon sessions. Each week alternates whether you are in the hospital in the morning or whether you are in a clinic. The afternoon is the same each week and depending on the semester you are either at the hospital or learning how to do a physical exam in small groups lead by faculty. You spend over half of the first semester slowly learning how to do a full physical exam, something I never thought I would get to learn as a dentist! I also never thought I would spend mornings talking to patients in the hospital as a dentist either. Every other week, you get to practice interviewing skills with patients. The alternate week, when you are at the clinic sites, dental students get to be at the dental clinic - this is the only difference dental students have in their schedule when compared to the medical student counterparts. In the dental clinic, you assist upperclassman and watch your peers conduct procedures. 

Common question: don’t you feel like you miss out on dental clinical experience at HSDM?

The short answer to this question… no. As I mentioned above, dental students get to spend every other Wednesday morning in the dental clinic. There's also a good amount of free time built into the schedule, so you can assist in the dental clinic any additional day or time you want. This provides access to more clinical experience than most dental schools!

One area that I will admit I feel “behind on” at HSDM is working in the lab practicing impressions and hand skills. That particular coursework doesn't start that until the second year. However, HSDM students still are able to work with patients in the third year, which is on pace with other schools. Also, my upperclassman peers have said that their hand skills improved the most when working on real patients in the third and fourth year (lab work can only stimulate real life to a certain extent). I’m also a strong believer that I have the rest of my life to be an awesome dentist and work on my hand skills, but I won’t always have the opportunity to go to medical school!

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