It’s no secret that many dental schools in the United States are based in underserved areas. In this way, there is a mutually beneficial situation where students have greater opportunities to recruit patients and members of the community have greater access to dental care. Nowadays, many dental schools have integrated community-based outreach into their programs where dental students provide dental care directly at community sites.
As dental students at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine in Philadelphia, we wanted to get more involved in the North Philadelphia community, a known underprivileged area. To do this, we created the First Annual North Philly Community Health Fair, presented by the Institute for the Development of African American Youth (IDAAY), in order to address barriers to care in the community.
As part of the health fair, which was held in October 2021, we provided supplies for and staffed a dental education and resources table, where we also administered an IRB-approved survey (originally created by the Center for Health Workforce Studies at SUNY Albany School of Public Health) on oral health knowledge, and barriers to and facilitators of accessing oral health services. As such, we were able to gain knowledge on this population.
The survey respondents (attendees of the health fair) were primarily Black or African American, consistent with the demographics of the area. All data were analyzed using descriptive statistics. To get an idea of the oral health awareness of the respondents, a series of true/false questions was presented.
Although there were no unanimously correct responses or overwhelming majorities, some statements did have the majority of correct answers, such as 75% agreeing that “some medicines can affect the health of your mouth.” Other statements were split evenly; half of the respondents believed “baby teeth are not that important because they do not stay in your child’s mouth very long.”
In the next section, respondents unanimously agreed that they value keeping their mouths healthy, and nearly 88% agreed that regular visits to the dentist would keep them healthy. Consistent with this, 92% say they brush their teeth at least once per day. On the other hand, 46% say they clean between their teeth (for example using dental floss or a toothpick) only once or less per week. Unfortunately, almost 53% of respondents reported that, in the last year, they needed dental care but could not get it. The needs were varied, ranging from needing a cleaning to needing pain relief or teeth extracted. The top three options they said would help them see a dentist more often included: more dentists in their area, more convenient office hours and having dental insurance.
Due to the actual and perceived barriers that these respondents face, many of them are getting suboptimal or no dental care. Over half of respondents reported they do not have a particular dentist they normally see if they need dental care. Most of our respondents lack a dental home, having nowhere to go when they need oral care. Exactly half of respondents subjectively describe the condition of their mouth and teeth as fair or poor, and less than 16% of respondents subjectively describe the condition of their mouth and teeth as very good or excellent.
This preliminary study gives us some insight into the view of oral health care in the North Philadelphia community and lets us brainstorm potential ways this information can be used to implement programs to help members of this community reach their oral health goals. It is clear that many respondents value their mouths, but their lack of regular dental care is keeping them from achieving optimal oral health. As future dentists, we recognize that this is an important issue that needs addressing, and it is our priority to take action now.
~Chelsea Wiener and Brooke Talsania, Pennsylvania ’23