Reaching Out to the Underserved

Aug. 20, 2014
These programs change lives. They reduce pain, improve health and self-image, and promote self-confidence.

By JoAnn R. Gurenlian, RDH, PhD

The American Dental Education Association's recently hosted its Allied Dental Program Directors' Conference in Philadelphia. One meeting that I participated in was exceptionally inspiring. A panel presentation focused on the best practices in reaching out to underserved populations. The panelists represented the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, Indiana University School of Dentistry, Fortis Institute-Erie, and New York University College of Dentistry (NYU). Within these presentations, the excitement and passion for providing preventive care was incredible. Each speaker shared details about their programs for reaching individuals in need and providing them with an oral health home.

While the panelists discussed different target groups, a consistent message was relayed: Prevention works. For example, the program at NYU took place in Grenada and served children every three months for several years, providing tooth brushing instruction, performing oral examinations, and placing fluoride varnish and sealants. At the beginning of the project, the caries rate of the children was an alarming 83%. At the completion of the program, there was a 90% reduction in caries!


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Another key message from the panelists was to collect data and document findings. It is important to record initial assessments and evaluate the implemented programs. Many of the panelists were able to secure funding in the form of grants and/or product supplies for their prevention programs. To sustain these efforts, grantees need to appreciate the success of the programs. The value of the program can only be appraised by data. While quantitative numbers are important, qualitative information is equally essential. In providing oral health homes and prevention programs, the public is receiving an invaluable service. These programs change lives. They reduce pain, improve health and self-image, and promote self-confidence.

Sometimes it is difficult for those of us working in private practice settings to envision conducting such a preventive program, or finding the time to do so. We are not sure how to get started, let alone how to get the resources together to make a program successful.

Two programs may be of interest to those who want to reach out to the underserved and provide an oral health intervention. These programs are sponsored through the International Federation of Dental Hygienists (IFDH).

Earlier this year, the IFDH formed a partnership with the Global Child Dental Fund (GCDFund) to support dental hygienists and dental hygiene students volunteering to conduct projects aimed at improving the oral health of disadvantaged children, known as the Social Responsibility Project. This project is designed to benefit children, mainly, but not exclusively, in low- and middle-income countries. The GCDFund has committed to provide the IFDH an annual grant for five years so that oral health prevention projects for children can be conducted. One grant is in the amount of $3,000, while two others are in the amount of $1,000.

For more information about this program, please visit or Applications for this program are due by September 30, 2014.

In addition, the IFDH is launching a new program titled “Every Child has a Tooth Brush and Knows How to Use It.” This project stems from a workshop held in 2010 in Scotland at the IFDH House of Delegates Meeting cosponsored by Procter & Gamble and the IFDH. At that time, the delegates recognized that improving the health of the public was essential, and that children are particularly vulnerable. It was felt that we needed to create a program that would teach children how to use a toothbrush effectively as one step in helping them prevent oral disease. Fortunately, we have secured primary sponsorship from Procter & Gamble and secondary sponsorship from Premier Dental to support small grants to dental hygienists who wish to reach out to children in need.

Teaching toothbrush instruction to children can be combined with other preventive measures such as placement of fluoride varnish and sealants, but the primary focus is on demonstrating that children know how to use this key preventive tool. Therefore, each dental hygienist who submits an application for this small grant must include a three-month follow-up visit to reinforce tooth-brushing techniques and assess performance. For more information about this opportunity, visit

The oral health needs of the public in the United States and worldwide are tremendous. We have opportunities to improve the health of the public by supporting preventive programs. Let's work together to build upon the efforts started by volunteer dental hygienists to make a difference.

JOANN R. GURENLIAN, RDH, PhD, is president of Gurenlian & Associates, and provides consulting services and continuing education programs to health-care providers. She is a professor and dental hygiene graduate program director at Idaho State University, and president of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists.

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