Grant brings dental care to Hispanic immigrants

Special to the Gazette

By Becky Berry, senior in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

That's the age-old lesson that University dental hygiene students have been able to teach a group of Siler City Hispanic immigrants, thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Carolina Center for Public Service.

Adult immigrants often don't earn enough money to be able to make dental care a priority. And while children typically get service in free clinics, adults tend to forego treatment to provide other needs for their families. The University's School of Medicine and Duke Endowment teamed up to reverse that trend through the "Immigrant Health Initiative," which allows lay health advisers to consult with Hispanic patients in Siler City.

After visiting a bus the initiative uses to bring dental-care advisers to immigrants, Vickie Overman thought of another way to meet some of the patients' needs while providing learning opportunities for some of her students. But she needed funding.

Overman, associate clinical professor in the Department of Dental Ecology and the director of the preventive recall clinic in the School of Dentistry, along with Mary George, director of dental hygiene programs and Pam Frasier, assistant professor of family medicine at the School of Medicine, received a Carolina Center for Public Service grant that allowed them to carry out Overman's two-fold plan.

The grant is funding dental screenings and follow-up treatments for 28 immigrants. Buses and vans, sponsored by the local churches, bring the patients from Siler City to the School of Dentistry. The program, which began in August, is drawing to a close as the last few patients complete treatments.

"The project provides students and staff a rich learning environment for developing cultural competency in caring for Hispanic cultures, in identifying their dental needs and in providing preventive dental care," Overman said. "We kind of piggy-backed onto the structure that was already there with the lay health advisers."

Students and faculty screen patients and accept adults who make good teaching cases and need more than a one-visit cleaning. Because Hispanic culture focuses on eliminating pain and not on prevention, Overman said, many of the patients had never had a professional cleaning. Patients often need four or five cleanings to remove the tartar and plaque build-up. Patients also receive oral and written instructions -- in Spanish -- about the proper way to brush and floss.

"A lot of [patients], you could tell, were timid. But because they were all coming together, and once they were here and saw what we were doing in helping them, they were just so appreciative," Overman said.

"I would definitely say it was a good challenge to get the different experience from a different culture and also a different patient," said Caroline Chen, a second-year dental hygiene student from Los Angeles. "You know, their society about oral health and cleaning is very different than our society here in America.

"I think by cleaning [a female patient's] teeth and showing her what she was like before and then after probably will motivate her more to seek dental care."

The students learn more than how to use their hygiene skills; they also learn how to communicate with patients who speak little or no English. Two Spanish interpreters from the dental school and lay health experts from Siler City's participating churches help bridge the language barrier.

"One of the things that I think was very nice was that it benefited both their population and ours," Overman said. "It benefited our students because a lot of our students had not seen patients that were this difficult to work on. I think that they got really challenged in being able to utilize their skills."

Overman said she hopes the students will be able to treat five or six more Hispanic patients this semester with the remaining grant funds.