I’m starting off the new year by spotlighting an exciting initiative here in New Mexico. Last month, the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene (UNM), opened a dental hygiene clinic in a local high school. This initiative allowed students who had received preventive dental services in their elementary and middle schools continued access to dental hygiene services.
Principal Scott Elder and Walt Bolic, the CEO of Delta Dental of New Mexico, cut the ribbon during the grand opening ceremony of Highland High School Dental Clinic.
I believe this is significant, not just because of the access to care it affords, but because many children will become accustomed to receiving routine, preventive dental care in their formative years. The hope is that after receiving preventive dental care from ages 5 to 18, many individuals will value this care because it represents a normalcy to prevention. And although students assume that dental hygienists and dentists value dental care, they now will see that teachers and principals value dental health and preventive services as well.
I believe it is widely accepted that children perform better in school when they are able to show up for class healthy, pain free, and ready to learn. School-based dental clinics bring dental care to the school ground, so students can avoid dental-related absences and receive preventive care throughout the school year. As Fones envisioned during the advent of dental hygiene, bringing preventive dental care to children via the school grounds continues to be an excellent avenue to increase access to dental care for all children.
Many New Mexican children already receive dental care via mobile programs in elementary and middle schools. Additionally, UNM operates three permanent school-based dental clinics that serve four middle schools, and opened a new clinic at the high school, which many of these children attend. UNM was able to open the first permanent school-based dental clinic with the support of Delta Dental of New Mexico, which continues to support these endeavors.
Collaboration, as always, is beneficial to all New Mexicans. Win-win situations between private and public sectors are scenarios that dental hygienists should pursue when looking into new endeavors. Without the support of private funders such as Delta Dental, UNM would not be able to support these initiatives.
Faculty dental hygienists run the school-based clinics, and each faculty member works with parents, teachers, and dentists to ensure optimal dental health for all students. All dental hygiene students gain clinical experiences in these clinics, which exposes them to another realm of dental hygiene, promotes prevention to underserved populations, and provides dental hygiene students with real-life experiences in public health settings. Additionally, this experience spotlights dental hygienists working in areas other than private offices, thus providing role models and potential mentors to upcoming dental hygienists.
UNM refers restorative services to neighboring clinics, and faculty members ensure that children in need receive follow-up prevention. Subsequently, this educates the dental hygiene students on the importance of dental hygienists as outreach workers. These outreach workers diligently strive to get children in need of dental treatment to dentists.
Providing dental hygiene care to children in need, including adolescents, is an area that dental hygienists should promote. The addition of school-based clinics in high schools further promotes dental hygiene care to a significant population, and can potentially enhance the oral health values of Americans. Dental hygienists should work with private and public entities to establish programs that ensure access to dental care for all Americans.
For more information on school-based clinics, please see http://dentalmedicine.unm.edu/dentalhy/about%20us/school%20based%20health.html.
Christine Nathe, RDH, MS, is a professor and graduate program director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.M. She is also the author of “Dental Public Health Research” (www.pearsonhighered.com/educator), which is in its third edition with Pearson. She can be reached at cnathe@ salud.unm.edu or (505) 272-8147.
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