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Improving Access to Oral Health Care

December 5, 2014    |  

Twenty-five million Americans live in areas of the country that lack adequate dental care services, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The University of Maryland School of Dentistry (UMSOD), Perryville Clinic is addressing this problem through interprofessional education.

A new initiative launched at the UMSOD Perryville enables University of Maryland School of Nursing nurse practitioner students to rotate through the clinic and participate in outreach programs to learn oral health assessment and education skills. Children, especially, are more likely to be treated by a nurse practitioner or pediatrician years before they see a dental care provider. The goal of the program is to prepare nurse practitioner students to incorporate oral health screening and promotion services into primary health care once they enter practice. “This program really enlightens these nurse practitioner students about the importance of oral health and how it is connected to a person’s overall health,” says Assistant Professor Lisa Bress, RDH, MS. “But they don’t just learn about it; they get hands-on experience.”

At Bay View Elementary School in North East, Md., five nurse practitioner students worked closely with UMSOD dental hygiene students to provide oral health screenings for children. The students collaborated to teach the elementary school kids about nutrition and proper brushing and flossing techniques. Family nurse practitioner student Sharifa Lloyd was surprised by the amount of decay she saw on the children’s teeth. “It is astonishing how much dental care some of these children need,” she says. “I’ve gained a much better understanding of how important oral health care is at an early age.”

UMSOD dental hygiene students provided advice to their peers about how to work with kids. “The biggest challenge in educating children about oral health is overcoming their short attention spans,” says Marilyn Butler, RDH ’15. “You have to catch them while they are fresh and then get them involved in the lesson.”

After spending the morning providing oral health screenings, fluoride varnish applications and education for the elementary school kids, the nurse practitioner students visited the Perryville Clinic to observe students providing clinical dental services and discuss the relationship between medical and dental care with UMSOD faculty members. The interprofessional program is a win-win for all students, says George Williams, DDS ’78, director of the Perryville Clinic. “Students in both fields develop skills for partnership across professions and gain greater competency and confidence in recognizing and addressing relevant systemic health issues,” he says.