More than a decade after the U.S. Surgeon General called for comprehensive action to address the “silent epidemic” of oral health disparity, millions of Americans still lack access to oral health care. A renewed initiative to increase oral health literacy is the focus of a new report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) which emphasizes that oral health is critical to overall health.
A nine-year demonstration project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) answers the IOM’s recommendations to close America’s persistent oral health gap and lays the framework for more intensive oral health literacy. With emphasis on training new oral health professionals and community dentistry, the Pipeline, Profession & Practice: Community-Based Dental Education program (Dental Pipeline) promoted diversity, access and delivery of care to underserved groups. The pilot effort ended last summer.
Dental Pipeline, established in 2001 after the Surgeon General’s call to action, succeeded in providing care to thousands of underserved patients by increasing the time that senior dental students spent in community clinics. The program, with 23 university sites, also increased the number of underrepresented minority dental students and enriched educational programs aimed at preparing emerging oral health professionals to care for patients from diverse populations.
RWJF President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., emphasizes the critical connection between oral health and overall health. “It is clear that efforts to improve health and health care must incorporate oral health. It is essential that physicians and other health care providers, as well as dental professionals and patients themselves, understand that it is impossible to be healthy if one is suffering from dental pain and infection or missing teeth.”
The human story of the program, told through oral health educators and students, is captured in a series of videos that were produced to document the work of the Dental Pipeline initiative.
Closely aligning with the Pipeline Program’s core values, the IOM report, Advancing Oral Health in America, recommends that the Department of Health and Human Services launch a renewed effort to increase oral health literacy among all Americans, including oral health professionals.
Key recommendations include:
- Emphasize disease prevention and oral health promotion.
- Improve oral health literacy and cultural competence.
- Reduce oral health disparities.
- Explore new models for payment and delivery of care.
- Promote collaboration among private and public stakeholders.
The California Endowment, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) partnered with RWJF in supporting the Dental Pipeline program.