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Outreach Project Reaches Underserved Rural Communities

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Written by Adam Zewe

For some residents of rural Elkton, Md., accessing dental care may seem like an impossible challenge. Underserved families do not have transportation to reach a nearby dentist, or the means to pay for treatment. A unique outreach program sponsored by the University of Maryland School of Dentistry (UMSOD) and the Cecil County Health Department eliminates these barriers by bringing free preventive oral health services directly into underserved communities.

During three outreach events, UMSOD faculty, dental students and hygiene students visited low -income housing communities to offer preventive oral health care services for children. They have provided oral health screening and fluoride varnish treatments for 136 children, as well plaque control instructions and nutritional counseling for kids and adults. "Our goal is to make sure that every child has a dental home and that these kids and their caregivers understand the importance of obtaining and maintaining their oral health," states Assistant Professor Lisa Bress, RDH, MS, who organized the outreach events.

Much of Cecil County does not have fluoridated water. Providing fluoride varnish for children and helping both caregivers and children understand how fluoride prevents decay could help decrease the rate of dental disease in the community, Bress explains. Dental and hygiene students work closely with their young patients, demonstrating proper brushing techniques and explaining the most common causes of tooth decay. "The students develop compassion and they also learn to explain oral health care techniques at the patient's literacy level. They really see how they can make a difference in these patients' lives," she says. To help ensure that the children continue to receive dental care, Perryville Clinic Administrator Patti Zimmer, RDH, BS, scheduled follow-up appointments at the school's Perryville, Md., clinic.

For Brooke Conard, RDH '15, who lives in Elkton, the experience helped her develop a new appreciation for the barriers that prevent some people from seeking dental care. "It was very rewarding to be able to reach out to this community. I feel like we made a real impact on these children," Conard states.

Nancy An, RDH '15, learned how to effectively utilize child-friendly communication techniques, such as simple words, pictures and puppets. She hopes the lessons inspire kids and adults to make positive changes in their diet and home care. "The best part was seeing the light bulbs go off when the children were able to explain to us what they had learned during their sessions," says An.

Research is also an important part of this outreach program. Bress is collaborating with Clinical Assistant Professor Diana Capobianco, DDS '98, who serves as the covering dentist for outreach events, and Alice Horowitz, RDH, PhD, research associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park School of Public Health, to conduct a study of oral health literacy. Dr. Horowitz designed surveys that were distributed to the caregivers at each outreach event. The surveys will be used to study how well the caregivers were educated about their oral health, and what communication techniques were most effective.

Bress already has plans to expand the program in the fall. She intends to partner with the School of Nursing by inviting nurse practitioner students to participate in the outreach programs. She hopes that, by increasing the oral health literacy of nurse practitioners, they will integrate oral health into their practice settings.

Click here to see a photo gallery from the outreach events.

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