By Vanessa-June Ovbiagele, MPH (Third year dental student), Nova Southeastern University, College of Dental Medicine
In November 2022, I had the privilege to serve a Remote Area Medical mission in Cleveland, Tenn. The community was chronically underserved, and we provided care to more than 200 patients in two days. These cases were complex and further complicated by a fundamental lack of basic knowledge about oral hygiene. Most patients required a review of oral hygiene practices due to a lack of access to oral health care for a significant amount of time.
Not only was this experience eye-opening, it was indicative of a more significant problem at hand. There are many pockets of populations globally that experience this sort of severe lack of dental care, which disproportionately impacts their health and quality of life due to poor dentition. The role of dental public health in this equation is to pinpoint these populations and to help make policymakers and local governments aware of the gaps in coverage and the need for community involvement to increase education surrounding dental care. Arranging mission trips such as the one that I served on in Tennessee, and an oral screening dental mission trip that I served in Hialeah, Fla., is helpful but are, unfortunately, short-term solutions.
All in all, dental public health is to advocate for and provide dental care to populations who suffer from a lack of access. The need for dental public health stems from an inability of our global community to find a way to ensure that everyone is receiving proper oral health care and oral hygiene instruction. These current conditions were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has denied routine health care opportunities to many. Without awareness campaigns, affordable dental care and population-level prevention of oral disease, communities like Cleveland, Tenn. will continue to be considered underserved, which only furthers the complications and illnesses associated with poor dentition.
As a dental student with a Master of Public Health and with the experience of a Remote Area Medical mission under my belt, I can confidently say that challenges to the field hinder dental public health. Everchanging populations and demographics and a crucial misunderstanding of the importance of dental hygiene and its impacts on whole-body health contribute to a pervasive lack of dental care in certain communities. Dental public health efforts can make a big difference.