Tufts Prof. Catherine Hayes Leads Dental School Community Service

10/08/2009 10:42

Can better dental health improve academic performance in inner city schools? According to Catherine Hayes, who leads the newly formed Department of Public Health and Community Service at the Tufts School of Dental Medicine, the answer is a resounding yes.

“Believe it or not, the number one reason why children miss school is dental-related problems. In fact, children in the U.S. miss 51 million school hours annually for tooth related problems. Simply put, you can’t learn with a tooth-ache,” according to Hayes, the department’s first chair, who is also the Delta Dental of Massachusetts Professor in Public Health and Community.

Unlike their counterparts in wealthier communities, many inner-city schools students don’t have a dentist and therefore don’t have access to dental care—for treatment for pressing problems or even preventative care. And that’s what Hayes is looking to address with colleagues from her department and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, along with others from Harvard University, Boston University, Boston College and Northeastern University.

Starting this fall, the five Boston-area universities are joining Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s Step Up program. In addition to providing several other priority services, these universities will bring dental prevention and treatment programs to eight elementary, one middle and one high school. In addition, it will provide education to the parents of those students. Requested by Mayor Menino, the higher ed institutions have committed to provide funding and in-kind services to the city over the next five years.

“Using portable dental equipment that we take to the schools, we’ll provide sealant and fluoride treatment for molars. It’s one of the most effective ways to prevent decay,” Hayes said.

Hayes and Sarah Cluggish, an associate program director at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, are heading the Tufts effort—Hayes on the dental front and Cluggish on the nutrition front. (Cluggish is implementing the HEAT (Healthy Eating and Active Time) Club, an after-school nutrition and physical activity curriculum in all eight elementary schools and local after-school programs.)

Rounding out the Tufts dental team are Natalie Hagel, director of School Based Initiatives and assistant professor of public health; Kathy Dolan, project coordinator with the Dental Schools’ Department of Public Health and Community Service; and Mark Doherty, a dentist and director of Dorchester House, a community health center. Mary Jeka, vice president for community relations at Tufts, is leading the Step Up effort for Tufts, and Tisch College will engage a student leader to organize undergraduate support for Tufts two focus schools: the Marshall and Chittick elementary schools in Dorchester and Mattapan, respectively.

Step Up Dental builds on the Smart Smiles program, a collaborative effort of the dental schools of Tufts, Harvard and Boston University that brings dental care to inner city second and third graders. Tufts students have volunteered in the Smart Smiles program under the guidance of a faculty supervisor and they will work with the Tufts team in the Step Up initiative.

Under the Smart Smiles and Step Up programs, if a child doesn’t have dental insurance—and most don’t—their family will not be charged.

While dental students will participate in the clinical component of the Step Up program, Hayes is looking for other Tufts students to assist with the education component.

“We’re seeing more of these programs springing up across the country, because a lot of people have issues getting access to and paying for dental care,” said Hayes. “Dental disease is one of the few diseases that we can completely prevent. We also know that tremendous disparities exist in oral health in this country with children from low income groups suffering disproportionately to their wealthier counterparts.”

Compounding the issue is a decline in the number of newly trained dentists as the general population increases.

“This creates an access to care issue, which is projected to reach its worst point in 2020, in Massachusetts and the U.S.,” said Hayes. “With only one percent of all dentists today going into public health dentistry, we’ll face a significantly greater need for public health dentists.”

(Originally published September 2007)