Projects will focus on serving at-risk and overlooked populations.
At Adams School of Dentistry, students, faculty and staff are committed to serving the needs of all North Carolinians, from the ocean to the mountains. Access to health care, and in particular, oral health care, is often an issue for people in rural or economically depressed areas. Regular oral health care maintenance can fall off priority lists when other needs — food, rent payments or child care — become pressing.
As part of the student experience at ASOD, students are encouraged to give back to their communities, and are true students of the community experience, not only bringing their own experiences and backgrounds to a diverse student body, but also shining a light on areas that others might miss.
Helping instill this commitment to transforming the health care landscape is the NC Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, dedicated to developing a pipeline of emerging professionals who enter the workforce with the skills and commitment necessary to address unmet health needs. NC Schweitzer Fellows are competitively chosen from graduate health professional students enrolled at major NC universities. They come from a variety of academic disciplines and, as Schweitzer Fellows, they work tirelessly to address existing health disparities throughout the state.
The most recent additions to the Schweitzer program include Raven Selden and Jada Graham, Delta Dental Schweitzer Fellows; Jeanie Chung and Esther Lee, BCBSNC Schweitzer Fellows; and Disha Thakkar and Pinar Adimci Doganci, NCOHC Schweitzer Fellows.
Selden and Graham are implementing an oral health education program called the Cavity-Free Zone to empower children with the knowledge and tools they need to achieve oral health and overall well-being. They aim to increase dental literacy and establish a dental home for children in need.
“During our first year of dental school, we visited the Boys and Girls Club (BGC) on DEAH Day, a school-wide day of service. We discovered a gap in oral health education at the BGC. Despite some interactions with the UNC dental school, there wasn’t a structured program to teach oral hygiene. As firm believers in education’s power to build strong foundations, we wanted to help bridge this gap and introduce oral health education to BGC members consistently,” Selden said.
Selden and Graham’s goal is to bring structured, oral health care to children served by BGC, focusing on closing the gaps in oral health education and access these children often face.
“This project aims to promote oral health education and self-care practices among BGC members through the development of age-appropriate oral health education programs and materials. In turn, we hope to improve oral health outcomes for these children,” Selden said.
As part of an expansion of a 2022-23 Schweitzer project, Chung and Lee are providing free dental treatment and oral hygiene education to residents in an emergency homeless shelter in Durham, N.C., through SMILE mobile dental clinic, UNC Adams School of Dentistry’s first mobile dentistry clinic.
“We recognize that many populations face barriers to accessing care and are unable to receive the oral care they need and deserve. The SMILE Mobile Clinic successfully provided two site visits to Families Moving Forward, an emergency shelter for people who face homelessness. Through our visits, we provided restorations, cleanings, radiographs, extractions, oral cancer screenings and oral health education through faculty and student volunteering. We provided almost $2,000 worth of dental care in dental school fees, and this could not have been possible without the help and support from the school, donors and students,” Chung and Lee said.
Chung and Lee’s focus on the mobile clinic aims to continue the outreach work and bring oral health care directly to those most in need. The populations served by the clinics are often faced with social and physical barriers to care, such as lack of transportation, low oral health literacy, cultural barriers and even social stigma.
“By traveling to underserved communities directly and delivering individualized dental care at no cost, we aim to bridge these gaps in access to dental care. We hope to inspire, lift and empower our neighbors for better oral health and quality of life,” Chung and Lee said.
Thakkar and Doganci are partnering with the UNC Oral Medicine Clinic to help women with early detection of autoimmune diseases by looking at oral symptoms like painful ulcers and chronic dry mouth so they can begin treatment. They will also be training health care providers and community health workers to increase awareness of the oral symptoms of these diseases.
“While seeing patients at the UNC Oral Medicine Hospital, we observed many women who have been suffering from autoimmune diseases that go undiagnosed until it severely deteriorates their health,” Thakkar said. “We specifically noticed gender disparity in receiving early diagnosis and treatment, resulting in decreased quality of life. This inspired us to create a community project to help women with early diagnosis and get timely referrals for other health care providers to manage the systemic symptoms of autoimmune diseases for a better quality of life.”
Thakkar and Doganci noted that oral symptoms are often indicators of autoimmune disorders, and the students plan to educate dentists and other health care providers about these early warning signs to better serve these patients.
“This project can help catalyze the diagnosis and speed up early treatment, which will improve the overall quality of life of these women with autoimmune diseases. This project will also increase awareness among patients and health care providers about the connection between their oral health and systemic health,” Thakkar said.