Experience Is More Effective than Classroom Learning in Changing Age Bias in Dental Students, UB Study Finds

By Lois Baker

Release Date: March 13, 2004 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Results of a program conducted at the University at Buffalo designed to dispel age bias among dental students has confirmed a universal truth: Experience is a more powerful teacher than words.

Findings from a survey administered to the dental students before they took part in an intervention developed to increase their knowledge of the elderly and again at the end of the school year showed that bias actually increased in students who had not yet worked with geriatric patients.

However, bias decreased in students who had treated the elderly in the school's clinics during the year.

Jude Fabiano, D.D.S., associate professor of restorative dentistry in the UB School of Dental Medicine, reported the findings today (March 13, 2004) at the International Association of Dental Research meeting in Hawaii.

Fabiano acknowledged that treating elderly patients can be frustrating. "They may miss an appointment because they are caring for a spouse, or because they rely on others for transportation," he said. "They may bring personal issues into the clinic. Providers can become impatient."

Knowing some overall concerns of, and limitations on, the elderly would help dental providers have more empathy for their senior patients, Fabiano hypothesized.

With that theory in mind, he and colleagues from the UB School of Dental Medicine and UB School of Social Work presented a lecture, small group seminar or similar program devoted to issues affecting the elderly to each dental school class (year 1 through year 4) in 2002. Before the program, students filled out a standard survey, Palmore's Facts on Aging Quiz II, designed to assess their age bias. The survey contained 25 questions gauged to assess general knowledge of health issues in aging. All students took the quiz again at the end of the school year.

Fabiano and colleagues tabulated scores from the pre- and post-test to arrive at a net bias score (the positive bias score minus the negative bias score) for each class. They found that the net bias score actually increased from pre-to-post test -- indicating more negative bias -- in students who were in the first two years of dental school when they spend most of their time in the classroom. In other words, knowledge alone didn't make students feel more positively toward elderly patients.

However, the net bias score went down for the third- and fourth-year students. These students had worked with the elderly in clinics by the time they had taken part in the program and completed the survey.

"We learned from this that it is not so much what they know about the elderly that is important," said Fabiano, "but their personal experiences relating to the geriatric patient that makes a difference."

However, some negative bias remained despite knowledge and experience, said Fabiano. "We are trying to get that number down to 0."

The research group now is conducting a longitudinal study of dental students to document attitude change over the four years of dental school.

Additional researchers on the study were Deborah P. Waldrop, Ph.D., and Thomas H. Nochajski, Ph.D., from the UB School of Social Work, and Kimberley M. Zittel-Palamara, Ph.D., Elaine L. Davis, Ph.D., and Louis J. Goldberg, D.D.S., Ph.D., from the UB School of Dental Medicine.

The study was funded in part by a grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York. UB's more than 27,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs.