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Schweitzer Fellow project highlights veterans' dental care needs

April 08, 2016

By Kimber Solana

Inspired by the interaction with a patient who had served in the Vietnam War, Nisha Garg, a dental student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, began working to help address the oral health care barriers facing veterans today.
    
As part of her Schweitzer Fellows project, Ms. Garg organized a Veterans' Screening Day, held Jan. 16 at UIC. Ms. Garg initially expected only up to 30 participants. By the day's end, more than 70 veterans had come to receive free initial screening and assessment.
    

Ms. Garg
Named after physician-humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, those selected for the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship spends a year working to address barriers that impact the health of underserved communities and help develop lifelong leadership skills.
    
"The more I learned about how many veterans are not able to receive access to dental care, the more I began to realize the depth of the problem," she said.
    
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, veterans have to meet certain eligibility factors to receive dental care, such as service-related dental disability or condition, or if they are a former prisoner of war. In addition, some veterans who qualify for dental benefits still don't receive the care they need because of the distance to their nearest VA hospital.
    
As part of Ms. Garg's fellowship, she and a classmate, Tom Angerame, conduct oral health educational seminars at the Jesse Brown Veteran Affairs Medical Center once a month for veterans who are ineligible for VA-affiliated dental coverage. Many of the veterans who attended Veterans Screening Day had attended at least one of her seminars at the center.
    
During Veterans Screening Day, Ms. Garg had the help of five UIC faculty members, including Dr. Clark Stanford, UIC dental school dean. More than 20 dental students also volunteered in conducting dental screenings and assisting with the flow of the patients. Of the 73 veterans who came to the event, 68 were accepted to the UIC College of Dentistry for screening and assessment; five were transferred elsewhere due to more complex medical or dental needs.
    
Volunteer students gave each patient a thorough head and neck extraoral exam, an oral cancer screening and a brief overview screening to determine if the patient would be suitable for UIC dental care. The patients also received dental care products, including toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss and denture cleaners.
    
"The morning of the screening day, veteran participants started forming a line outside the school well before the start time of 9 a.m.," Ms. Garg said. "All of these factors illustrate the intense demand for dental care amongst this population."