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Creating Oral Health Ambassadors

Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center CEO and Dental Director Dr. Karen Becerra sat down with us recently to chat about the 2017 DTA Foundation the program received and the impact it will make in seniors’ oral health.

What is the need your program, Oral Health Education and Peer Ambassador Program for Low-Income Seniors, is seeking to meet and how are you doing that?

The mission of the Gary and Mary West Senior Dental Center (SDC) is to provide affordable, high-quality oral health care with comprehensive education, clinical, and wellness services for seniors in need, enabling them to live healthy, independent, and productive lives. We do this by meeting seniors where they are. We are located within the bustling Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center that provides meals and supportive services to more than 800 low-income seniors every day. Through clinical practice and teaching, we have been able to reconnect the mouth with the rest of the body and raise the profile of this vital barometer of health.

Oral health education and prevention services are critical to improved and sustainable oral health. The majority of seniors in our care have gone years, and often decades, without access to routine oral health instruction and care. As such, we do much more than treat our patients. We inform and teach them. Our onsite oral health education class is key to our success, and their health. Seniors that are already visiting the wellness center for meals and social services can attend the class, taught by our Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH), before treatment. Classes are offered in English, Mandarin, and Spanish.

The implementation of the oral health prevention program was one of our initial efforts to address care delivery innovation, and it has been a huge success. We want to build on that for even better outcomes. The DTA Foundation grant will allow us to design and test a post-treatment oral health education class, one of the first of its kind, and create an Oral Health Peer Ambassador Program to add to the continuum of our holistic services.

What makes you program unique and innovative?

The implementation of an oral health prevention program, something designed to prepare seniors for, and get the most out of, their dental treatment, was an early innovation at the SDC that has produced significant positive results for patients and the clinic as a whole. We want to build on that for even better outcomes. As a learn-and-do organization, the SDC will launch the post-treatment class to address issues identified by our patient and team members. For example, seniors have repeatedly asked for more classes with additional topics including: preserving your oral health and treatment, oral hygiene adaptive aids and products, oral health and its relationship to chronic medical conditions, and detecting oral cancer. Second, one of the main concerns our seniors experience is social isolation. As a result, some patients schedule unnecessary follow-up appointments, simply to interact with our staff. This post-treatment class will not only give them the opportunity to interact with our staff on clinical issues but also foster peer-to-peer dialogue and support. Third, given our commitment to restoring oral health, we want to ensure that our patients have the support, knowledge, and skills needed to maintain their dental health between the time they finish their treatment plan and come in for their 6-month recall visit. Seniors that complete the full cycle of oral health care services (Comprehensive Geriatric Assessment, oral health education class, dental treatment plan completion, post-treatment class), will then be asked to join an Oral Health Peer Ambassador Program to help incoming patients learn about and navigate their oral health care.

What is your ultimate goal with this program?

The goals of the post-treatment oral health education class are to promote the continuation of proper oral health habits, keep seniors engaged and committed to their oral health while they wait for their recall appointments, and provide a means to reduce social isolation. The goal of the Peer Ambassador Program is provide a new civic engagement opportunity for seniors to meaningfully engage with our services and their peers. We anticipate that this program will help more seniors access needed oral health care through peer to peer navigation and support, allow seniors to contribute to their community, and provide a forum through which seniors can advocate for oral healthcare. The post-treatment class and Peer Ambassador Program will become integral parts of our oral health prevention program, which we plan to replicate in offsite locations, thus providing care for more seniors and in varied settings. 

As our population continues to age, we need cost effective solutions to create a culture that values senior health and quality of life. Our ultimate goal is that this pilot project highlights the importance of continued oral health education and civic engagement among seniors as a means to provide more patient-centered care, lower costs, and improve treatment outcomes. 

How will the DTA Foundation grant help you meet your program goals?

The DTA Foundation grant is pivotal to completing our program as it provides funding for us to develop and pilot our post-treatment oral health class. It also supports the development of the Peer Ambassador Program.

Is there anything you’d like to say to the donors who make these grants possible?

With 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, and 70 percent of those without dental insurance, deficits in senior oral health have reached crisis proportions. The problem is more severe among impoverished seniors, who lack access to care due to high costs and limited providers accepting Denti-Cal. We are only able to start addressing this problem because of funders that recognize the importance of senior oral and overall health.