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An artist's message: Public health student educates on oral health and diabetes

December 21, 2015

By Michelle Manchir

Milwaukee — When Dina Garcia earned a grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research to explore the impact of diabetes on Mexican Americans’ oral health, the Medical College of Wisconsin graduate knew she wanted to find a unique way to complete her research and educate the public.

Thanks to her expertise on the subject, local connections, and some help from her sister, Dr. Garcia opened an informational art gallery.

“The Milwaukee Diabetes & Oral Health Gallery” was featured in November — National Diabetes Month — in a storefront in the heart of Milwaukee’s Latino neighborhood, said Dr. Garcia, who in December earned her Ph.D. in Public & Community Health.

Photo of Dina Garcia, Ph.D. on the right and her sister Marcela Garcia
Teamwork: Dina Garcia, Ph.D., on the right, and her sister, Marcela Garcia created the oral health art gallery together.

Dr. Garcia, with her sister, Marcela “Xela” Garcia, who serves on the City of Milwaukee Arts Board, recruited 11 local artists of Mexican origin to contribute paintings, sculptures and other works of art. Each artist developed their art piece with inspiration from quote or statistic that Dr. Garcia provided to them that came out of bilingual focus groups she led earlier in the year, said Dr. Garcia, who was born in Mexico but grew up in Milwaukee.

Many participants in the groups did not have information about or access to oral health care, she said. Her research also found that language discordance with dental providers has a deleterious effect on patient-provider communication and patient satisfaction with care, highlighting the need to improve access to bilingual and bicultural dental care within this population, she said.

One painting in the gallery, by artist Rosana Lazcano, featured a man holding and feeding a child and included corresponding information about the importance of demonstrating good oral health habits and nutrition throughout the life course.

“The whole point of the artist’s image was that we need to teach our young children about oral health habits and the importance of taking care of oneself,” Dr. Garcia said.

Mexican Americans are disproportionately affected by periodontitis and tooth decay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A previous study conducted by Dr. Garcia found that Mexican Americans are 2.6 times more likely to have periodontitis compared to non-Hispanic whites, she said.

“The key was to reach this high-need community,” Dr. Garcia said.

Dr. Monica Hebl, who runs a practice in Milwaukee and is former chair of ADA Council on Prevention, Access and Interprofessional Relations, said, “Many people don’t realize the difference that maintaining their oral health through good homecare and regular professional dental care can make to their overall wellbeing.” Dr. Hebl also applauded Dr. Garcia’s efforts. “Through her research, personal experience, connections in the community and creativity, Dr. Garcia is making a difference and an inspiration to us all."

Dr. Garcia’s passion for her work is, in part, personal. Her father has diabetes, she said, and her grandmother passed away from complications related to the disease.

“It wasn’t just the numbers I saw through (my research and work), but also having personal connections — I see how diabetes directly affects my family,” she said.

The gallery drew widespread interest. It gained more than 100 visitors, and the support of the Milwaukee local government. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett issued a proclamation to recognize “Diabetes and Oral Health Awareness Day” on Nov. 20, the day the gallery opened.

Photo of oral health art interactive wall at the Milwaukee Diabetes & Oral Health Gallery
Artistic engagement: An interactive wall at the Milwaukee Diabetes & Oral Health Gallery in November allowed visitors to share their thoughts about the educational art gallery.
Dr. Garcia said the gallery also featured an interactive wall, where visitors could use Post-It notes to share their thoughts or feelings about the gallery.

“A lot of the messages described how important it was — they didn’t know diabetes was associated with oral health,” Dr. Garcia said, adding that one attendee said “thank you for sharing the perspectives of Latinos who are rarely heard or asked about their health and self-care.”

In 2016, Dr. Garcia said she is moving to Iowa City to work at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry as a post-doctoral fellow.  She hopes to keep using community based participatory approaches to raise awareness about oral health and diabetes within the Latino community, she said.

The gallery will be available virtually beginning mid-January at Information and images are also available by searching for “Milwaukee Diabetes & Oral Health Gallery.”