UW News

November 7, 2002

Increasing access to dental services

The UW School of Dentistry is one of two schools on the West Coast to receive a grant of almost $1.5 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to increase the underserved population’s access to oral health care. Through this grant, the UW will triple the placements of fourth-year dental students in Washington’s rural and urban community clinics.

The grant will be distributed over five years as part of the Foundation’s Pipeline Profession & Practice: Community-Based Dental Education initiative. Nationwide, 10 dental schools are receiving grants to increase access to oral health care for low-income and other underserved populations, as well as to help recruit applicants with diverse backgrounds into dentistry. The chosen institutions will work together to develop strategies to increase recruitment and retention of under-represented and economically disadvantaged students.

Dental schools funded through the Pipeline program will work to forge community-campus partnerships that enable their students, residents, and faculty to work with community-based clinics, as well as with health agencies, hospitals, schools, local private practitioners, and other organizations to provide services to populations with poor oral health and limited access to dental care.

The Surgeon General’s Report on the Oral Health of the Nation, released in May 2000, indicated that oral health in the United States has improved greatly over the last half-century, but “there is a ‘silent epidemic’ of oral disease affecting poor children, the elderly and many members of racial and ethnic minorities.” Low numbers of under-represented minority students enrolling in the nation’s dental schools worsen this problem. This grant provides the UW School of Dentistry with tools to address both these issues.

The first year of the grant focuses on curriculum planning. Initial plans call for expanding student placements in clinics in Seattle, Bellingham and the Yakima Valley, while identifying new clinical sites, such as in the Spokane area. Among the benefits of spending more time in communities is an opportunity for increased interaction with residents and for the development of heightened appreciation and sensitivity to cultural differences, says Dr. Thomas Morton, Jr., professor in the departments of Oral Biology and Oral Medicine and director of the UW’s Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Pipeline Profession & Practice program. Morton is principal investigator for the grant.

“The goal here is to give the students an experience of working in community clinics that will introduce them to the dental health needs of underserved populations and provide them with the kernel for the idea, ‘Maybe this is something I could do when I graduate,’” Morton says.

“Twenty-five percent of families in Washington that need dental care are unable to access dental care,” says Dr. James Steiner, co-principal investigator. Steiner holds the Washington Dental Service endowed chair in dentistry and is a professor of endodontic dentistry. “Clinical experience gives our students a community perspective. They need to be able to see that there are individuals out in the community who get little or no care and that one of the solutions is the dentist in the community. What we suggest to our students is that they recognize these unmet needs.”

The grant calls for utilizing the experience and contacts of the UW School of Medicine’s highly successful regional WWAMI program (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) and the regional AHEC (Area Health Education Center) to assist the School of Dentistry in the development of the support systems necessary for additional clinical interactions.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, based in Princeton, N.J., is the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care. It concentrates its grant funding in four goal areas: to assure that all Americans have access to basic health care at reasonable cost; to improve care and support for people with chronic health conditions; to promote healthy communities and lifestyles; and to reduce the adverse personal, social, and economic health impacts caused by substance abuse—tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs.

The Pipeline Profession & Practice national program office is based at Columbia University’s School of Dental and Oral Surgery. The other West Coast recipient of funding is the University of California San Francisco’s School of Dentistry.