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The role of the dental student in preventive dentistry

My love affair with teeth began in 2003, and early on, I realized the huge impact we can make on others in our community and our friends and family, as well as how rewarding this career can be. In school, I was eager to learn everything new and better in dentistry — the variety of tools, materials and techniques to achieve beautiful direct composite restorations, long-lasting crowns, successful painless endodontic treatments and same-day implants. I was restoring function and restoring teeth to their natural beauty, and it was fulfilling actually making someone’s life better.

But I realized that I was not fighting the cause, I was fighting the consequences. I was fighting oral disease when I was supposed to prevent it from happening. It feels good to possess the mechanical ability to restore the original symmetry of the lost part of a tooth — and this is important, we have to learn that — but what if, instead, I could help reduce the rate of cavities? Or improve access to dental care? What if I could empower people in underserved communities to manage their own oral health? How would that feel?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tooth decay is the most common chronic disease of children between ages 6–11 and it is four times more common than asthma among adolescents. Although one of the goals of the Healthy People 2020 initiative is to prevent and control oral disease and improve access to preventive services and dental care, lack of access to dental care remains a public health challenge. Many people living in the United States have poor oral health because of this.

Interventions such as water fluoridation and dental sealants have been proven to reduce the rate of cavities, but, as the CDC reports, about 100 million Americans still do not have access to fluoridated tap water and about 60% of children ages 6–11 don’t get dental sealants, just as children from low-income families are 15% less likely to get dental sealants than children from higher-income families.

Many oral disease conditions are preventable. In addition to dentists, dental students and hygienists play a critical role in promoting the oral self-care habits of their patients, their community and society in general. Improving oral health starts with improving knowledge. The best way for our patients to adopt favorable oral health habits is to be aware of the potential consequences in their overall health. A basic oral health program, such as the integration of health education and provision of preventive, restorative and emergency dental care, can positively contribute to this, which is why dental schools are an important channel to the local community. School community interactions are not only cost-effective, but they can simultaneously improve education and oral health.

The combined talents of public health agencies, private industry, dental schools and its students, social services organizations, media, community leaders and voluntary health organizations are indispensable, not just to reduce but to eliminate health disparities.

Despite all the improvements in oral health over the years, there is still so much to do. All dental health professionals must continue searching for solutions to develop effective public health programs and routines that will result in better oral health outcomes and reduce disparities across the country, while continuing to advocate to improve the public’s oral health.

The oral health of our communities needs our help. Let’s all take action to make a change, inspiring others to join the effort and accelerate a movement to enhance the oral health in our country.

~ Dr. Debora Ferreira Klein, International Dentist

Debora Ferreira Klein

Dr. Klein graduated from Universidade Regional de Blumenau in Brazil in 2009 and is a community dental health coordinator program at Kentucky Community & Technical College. She decided to study community dental health because of her passion for helping others and the potential to make a real impact on many patients in need.

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