Improving dental health outcomes for all requires collaboration and commitment

By: Elizabeth Carr, DHA, MDH, RDH, Director of the Population Oral Health Collaborative, and Sreenivas Koka, DDS, MS, PhD, MBA, Dean, University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Dentistry 

The struggles of Mississippians represent common challenges in oral health care, from education to access to care to cost to prevention. These same challenges are experienced by most states and by many countries. There is no shortage of data showing the breadth and depth of the burden faced by those from lower socioeconomic strata; we know the monster we face. Despite many programs attempting to meet these challenges, there are few examples of sustained success. This means that what was done in the past may not guide what should be done in the future, and different ways of thinking are required.

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To begin, we must create an unwavering collaborative spirit bringing together the many stakeholders who play a role in improving oral health. Stakeholders include parents, children, community health care workers, school nurses, medical and dental health care providers, social workers, faith-based organizations, community clinics and centers, public health departments, government agencies, foundations, and academic centers, to name a few. Not all stakeholders will be willing or able to help at the same time. Patience and wisdom are needed to identify opportunities that align the right people at the right time in the right way. 

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Bringing stakeholders together, albeit necessary, is not sufficient. Achieving the desired transformation of oral health outcomes will require courage to go against the grain. Courage enables the testing of innovative models with a systems-thinking approach.

At the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), we have assessed the need and opportunities in our state. Here, we describe how we have used telehealth technology platforms to reach all corners of our state. The UMMC Telehealth Center for Excellence (TCOE) is one of two nationally recognized telehealth centers in the United States. Combining the TCOE infrastructure with our commitment to disease prevention education and care is a good example of aligning resources and stakeholders. 

The UMMC TCOE and the School of Dentistry have partnered to initiate one of very few Project ECHO programs focused on dentistry. Project ECHO educates oral health care providers across Mississippi through monthly webinars. Content is geared towards those areas identified by providers working in rural and underserved communities. As awareness of Project ECHO has grown, the number of providers from Mississippi and nationwide who participate in the webinars has increased. Survey data validates that the information being shared is impactful.

A second initiative with the UMMC TCOE is a program funded by the Department of Education to provide educational resources to over 600 school nurses across Mississippi. Again, programming is geared towards the oral health challenges school nurses face while caring for children in rural and underserved communities. Moreover, providing a network enables a community of school nurses to collaborate as they share experiences and lessons learned. The use of telehealth creates an incredible opportunity to address the incredible need.

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    You are not alone

Oral health disparities are visible and clear, and with that knowledge comes the responsibility to act. You won’t act alone. Organizations across the country provide support in various ways, from advocating for oral health excellence and education to providing funding opportunities to positively impact oral health equity. Find or create collaborative partnerships that intentionally focus on leadership, courage, and love, and let’s watch our societies change for the better.