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Dr. Carmona lauds ADA

Keynoting the ADA's first symposium on oral health literacy Wednesday, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, M.D., hailed the Association for recognizing oral health literacy and cultural competency as "extraordinarily important" issues in health care, and for promoting oral health as "inextricable" from general health.

The "Oral Health Literacy Symposium: Ethics, Risk Management and Communication," which continues today, is sponsored by the ADA Council on Access, Prevention and Interprofessional Relations.

Born to Puerto Rican immigrants in the tenements of Harlem, Dr. Carmona learned early on about the vital need for clear communication in matters of health. When older family members, who spoke little or no English, had to visit a doctor, they often took one of the children along to interpret.

"You had an 8-year-old child translating for a 75-year-old grandmother," he recalled. "What if [the grandmother] needs to talk about her most intimate problems? Is she going to do it through her 8-year-old grandson?"

Such memories, he said, served him well when, in 2002, he was named the 17th U.S. Surgeon General, the first in that post to be unanimously approved by the Senate. Long a champion of oral health literacy, Dr. Carmona often broached the topic in his four-year tenure (2002-2006) as the nation's chief health official.

"We need to do something to close the gap between what health care professionals know and what the rest of America understands," he said in a 2003 address to the National Press Club.

In San Antonio Wednesday, Dr. Carmona described the United States as a nation "divided by our metrics." The indigent and undereducated are more likely to suffer life-threatening ailments, in part because they don't always understand what their doctors are telling them.

"Much of what we call 'noncompliance,'" he said, "is really a failure to communicate. All the best science in the world won't help unless we embrace oral health literacy and cultural competency."

Dr. Carmona also talked about the need for oral health to achieve full "parity" with general health. "When I talk about health, I include oral health," he said.

America's health care system, he added, is really "a sick care system," focused chiefly on treating disease after the fact, when the goal should be preventing disease before it starts.

"Dentistry figured that out half a century ago," Dr. Carmona said of the dental profession's long-standing emphasis on prevention.

The health literacy symposium resumes today at 3 p.m. in Room 103 at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Today's topic: practical tools to use in addressing oral health literacy.

Dr. Lindsey Robinson, CAPIR chair and a pediatric dentist from California, introduced Dr. Carmona Wednesday morning.

"The ability of oral health professionals to clearly communicate health information is an essential element of effective dental practice," said Dr. Robinson.

Other speakers for Wednesday's session included Dr. Bill Smith, executive vice president and senior scientist, Academy for Educational Development; Dr. Alice Horowitz, advisor to the Dean on Health Literacy, University of Maryland, School of Public Health; Dr. Lillian Obucina, a dentist, attorney and consultant on ethical and risk management issues; and Dr. Scott Lingle, a CAPIR member.

Today's speakers will include Dr. Jessica Lee, associate professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Pediatric Dentistry; and Gary Podschun, CAPIR manager.