New Community Dental Health Coordinator Program in Chicagoland

Greg Johnson

In 2016, 40 percent of children across the state of Illinois had untreated dental decay on their baby or permanent teeth, according to Oral Health Illinois. Tooth decay is the number one disease affecting the world. Oral health is key to overall health and ultimately, it is our goal to decrease the prevalence of the diseases of the oral cavity.

To help improve the quality of oral health within our state's underserved communities, in 2006 the American Dental Association began developing the Community Dental Health Coordinator (CDHC) model. The primary goal of this initiative was to provide prevention, care coordination, education, and patient navigation to underserved communities across the U.S. in various settings: urban, rural, and American Indian communities. The educational training is part of a nationwide program that empowers dental team members to be well equipped in addressing the needs of underserved populations linking these to dental providers for ongoing care. In Illinois, many CODA accredited schools began offering this additional training via a multi-year HRSA grant.

Community Dental Health Coordinators help patients gain a better understanding of preventive oral health techniques as well as establish daily oral care habits such as brushing twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and flossing. CDHCs are a natural extension of a dental team. Outside of the clinic, CDHCs are actively engaged in their communities through school-based oral health education and disease prevention programs with children and adults of all ages. In addition, they consistently follow up with families and caregivers to ensure the best care is provided in all settings. CDHCs also act as case managers and help connect parents and patients to public insurance as well as services such as child care and transportation to get to dental appointments. This important role will additionally help to educate the public with regard to healthy habits that include dietary choices and importance of daily tooth brushing and cleaning between the teeth.

A key factor in ensuring the success of the program is that CDHCs often come from the very communities in which they will serve upon graduation. This all but eliminates cultural and language barriers that might otherwise impact their effectiveness. The CDHCs' strong relationships and connection to the communities in which they serve help establish trust and credibility among their patients as they work to improve access to quality dental care.

I am very proud of the dedication and commitment demonstrated by so many dental professionals across the state since we launched the Community Dental Health Coordinator program. Through the collaborative efforts of dental schools, instructors, graduates and, of course, dental clinics, we are making an impact in improving the overall health of Illinois residents. Ensuring our residents' long-term health and well-being begins with helping them understand the importance of dental health -- not just in February but throughout the year.

Greg Johnson is the Executive Director of the Illinois State Dental Society.

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