UNE and partners collaborate on strategy for preventing oral disease in rural communities

The University of New England Dental Hygiene Program, Maine Area Health Education Center (AHEC) Network, Partnership for Children’s Oral Health, and The Opportunity Alliance have partnered to provide opportunities for UNE health profession students to perform oral health screenings and fluoride varnishes to children in rural and underserved communities.

Students will provide the services at elementary school-based children’s oral health clinics in the Sebago Lakes region.

The work is part of a broader effort by the Partnership for Children’s Oral Health to increase awareness and promote oral health in rural Maine, where dental access is often limited or nonexistent.

Maine has a lower number of practicing dentists than the national average, and there are entire counties without any dental providers who accept Medicaid. That makes it essential for other medical providers to incorporate prevention of oral disease into well-child visits in primary care settings.

The clinics will allow students from UNE’s Osteopathic Medicine, Physician Assistant, and Nursing programs to work with dental hygiene students on detecting oral disease and applying fluoride varnish.

“It’s important to train all of our medical providers to screen for oral health so that they are comfortable recognizing signs of poor oral health and can refer patients to a dental professional,” says Courtney Vannah, IPDH, assistant clinical professor in UNE’s Dental Hygiene program.

Public health and social work students provide oral health education to the elementary students as well as logistical support, creating a true interprofessional approach to care.

“Poor oral health is a significant public health issue in Maine that affects more than a person’s teeth,” commented Jen Gunderman, director of the Maine AHEC program. “We thought that this could be an issue that our students could help address, so we decided to integrate oral health into our Care for the Underserved Pathways (CUP) AHEC Scholar curriculum.”

The oral health curriculum consists of in-person training for CUP AHEC Scholars on how to conduct oral health screenings and apply fluoride varnish. Students can then sign-up to staff one of the school-based children’s oral health clinics that are being offered through The Opportunity Alliance (OA).

“Working with The Opportunity Alliance and the Partnership for Children’s Oral Health for UNE’s Dental Hygiene students was a clear choice” says Marji Harmer-Beem, M.S., director of UNE’s Dental Hygiene program. “After talking with Maine AHEC, we decided that it made sense to bring in students from other health professions programs to get involved as well.”

A few weeks after receiving fluoride varnish, dental hygiene students return to the schools to apply sealants, a procedure used to protect the teeth in the back of the mouth, which are highly susceptible to tooth decay.

“We were seeing a lot of poor oral health during our visits to these schools, which is why we reached out to the Partnership for Children’s Oral Health and UNE,” explained Amber Lombardi, RDH, oral health manager at OA.

The project was funded by the Partnership for Children’s Oral Health.

“We really value this collaboration with UNE, Maine AHEC, and the OA,” stated Becca Matusovich, executive director of the Partnership for Children’s Oral Health (PCOH). “This model will help ensure that Maine children can grow up free from preventable dental disease.”

Both Vannah and Gunderman recently presented at the New England Rural Health Conference in Newry, Maine, to promote their work on oral health in rural Maine. Vannah’s presentation, titled “Simple Strategies for Prevention of Oral Disease,” centered on increasing knowledge of oral health prevention strategies available to all members of the health care team.

Gunderman’s presentation, titled “Taking the Next Bite Out of an Oral Health Initiative for Children in Rural Maine,” focused on using the Maine AHEC Networks interprofessional model of oral health clinics as a tool for increasing access to dental care.

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