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Action for Dental Health

CDHCs Improve Access to Dental Care on Navajo Nation

September 4, 2015 


Florina Howard 
Sonia Vandever

Sonia Vandever and Florina Howard know well the unique dental care challenges facing the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico.

To improve access to care and expand education about the importance of dental health and how to maintain it, Ms. Vandever and Ms. Howard have spent their Community Dental Health Coordinator (CDHC) summer internships in communities like the ones they grew up in on the Navajo Nation.

The summer internships are part of the CDHC training program offered by Central New Mexico Community College. CDHCs work in inner cities, remote rural areas and Native American lands. Most CDHCs grew up in these communities, allowing them to understand the unique barriers that affect access to dental care.

“I’ve spent a lot of time visiting people in their homes, which are in remote areas,” said Florina Howard, who is a dental assistant at the Tse'hootsooi' Medical Center in Fort Defiance, Ariz. “I provide oral health screenings during these home visits, and teach people how to care for their dentures and refer them to their nearest dental clinic.”

Oral health outreach and education are paramount to helping people in underserved communities receive the knowledge they need to seek regular dental care, and are the foundational elements of the Navajo Community Health Representative (CHR) program, which is committed to improving the health and wellness of the Navajo people.  The CHR program is seeking to incorporate greater awareness and education about the importance of oral health to overall health.

Ms. Howard was born in Crystal, N.M., a town of fewer than 400 people near the border between Arizona and New Mexico. She grew up there and in the neighboring town of Navajo, which has a population of about 2,100 people. 

“In Crystal, there’s no gas station, no store, so that poses a challenge,” said Ms. Howard. “For many people I see during home visits, it’s difficult for them to get transportation, so my going out there benefits them because we’re finding a way to get them to a dental clinic.”

Ms. Vandever, who also works at the Fort Defiance medical center, grew up in Smith Lake, N.M., a small town that is also near the New Mexico-Arizona border. This summer, Ms. Vandever taught people about the importance of oral health at chapter houses near Thoreau. Chapter houses are administrative, communal meeting places where residents of that particular community meet, much like a town hall.

“I like being there to provide parents and children with information about how they can take better care of their mouths and what to expect when they’re going to the dental office,” she said.

Ms. Vandever also educated mothers and their children at the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) center in Gallup, N.M. WIC is a federal nutrition program that provides services such as health screenings, risk assessments, nutrition education and counseling, breastfeeding promotion and health care referrals to pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children five and younger.

Both Ms. Howard and Ms. Vandever plan to continue working with people living on the Navajo Nation after the CDHC program is finished.

“The CDHC program is an effective way to reach out to more Navajo people, and ensure that they receive the dental care they need,” said Ms. Howard.