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Connecting communities with oral health: CDHC students in New Mexico

ADA initiative trains Navajo community health workers oral health curriculum

May 30, 2017

By Michelle Manchir

Group photo of Vanessa Woods-Henry, Taylor Vittitow, Venessa Trujillo, Lynn Dean, Tammy Whitney, Rayes Armstrong, Larissa Morgan, Regina Bia and Stephanie Blanchard
CDHC stars: The Central New Mexico Community College Community Dental Health Coordinator program cohort includes students (bottom low, from left) Vanessa Woods-Henry, Taylor Vittitow, Venessa Trujillo, Lynn Dean and (top row, from left,) instructor Tammy Whitney, Rayes Armstrong, Larissa Morgan, Regina Bia and Stephanie Blanchard.
Photo courtesy of Native Laboratories
Albuquerque, N.M.
– A bridge to oral health care and education is only useful if patients feel confident enough to cross it.

With that in mind, one of the major elements of the ADA’s Community Dental Health Coordinator initiative involves making sure patients have a friendly face associated with a dental office to help them navigate appointment scheduling and sometimes transportation and childcare so they don’t have to miss an appointment.

That’s why oral health advocates are glad to hear that almost half of the current Community Dental Health Coordinator cohort in training at the Central New Mexico Community College are from the Navajo Nation.

“By having CDHCs who have the cultural knowledge and understanding working in the Navajo community, I think it has an impact on the whole community in terms of how it will prioritize oral health care. It will improve understanding on how oral health impacts their quality of life,” said Dr. Tom Schripsema, director of the New Mexico Dental Association, which has worked with the ADA and the Arizona Dental Association in promoting oral health in tribal communities.

The Navajo Nation covers three states — Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — and includes about 180,000 people, but access to health care facilities, including dental, for many of its residents, is limited.

One resource the Navajo Nation has been using to meet health needs is with Community Health Representatives, community health workers who work with residents by serving as interpreters, offering health screenings, providing home visits, encouraging preventive activities and more.

Last year, organized dentistry and the Navajo Nation collaborated to help improve the community’s oral health care, in part by recruiting Community Health Representatives to Community Dental Health Coordinator programs. The collaboration was successful. The CDHC cohort that started in January includes 10 students, four of whom are from the Navajo Nation.

Melanie Upshaw, program director of the dental assisting and CDHC programs at Central New Mexico Community College, said the work of the CDHC program helps put into action the college’s vision of “changing lives, building community.”

“Our focus for the CDHC program is oral health through prevention, assessment, navigation and advocacy,” said Ms. Upshaw. “Our graduates are from regions where oral care is difficult to access or there are social determinants such as geography, employment, nutrition or affordable health care that create barriers that the graduates understand and can navigate to create a change within their community.”

The one-year program certificate program includes courses on dental science, dental materials, the principles and techniques of dental radiology, palliative care and foundations for dental advocacy and outreach. Students also take on an internship situated in a variety of settings, including Federally Qualified Health Centers, tribal clinics or private practice settings.

Photo of Stephanie Blanchard and Venessa Trujillo
Hitting the books: Central New Mexico Community College students Stephanie Blanchard, right, and Venessa Trujillo are among the current cohort of Community Dental Health Coordinators at the school.
Photo courtesy of Native Laboratories

Dr. Schripsema said a dental assistant who works in his private practice office in Albuquerque is currently a CDHC student, and he foresees her enhanced dental education as a way to help not only his patients, but also his office.

“From a practice standpoint, the CDHC can be one part of reducing the barriers to care by making it feasible for the patients to get to their appointments,” he said. “The CDHC is someone who specializes in making that work.”

The ADA launched the CDHC program in 2006, and as of May there were 12 colleges offering the certification, with three more schools finalizing a license agreement. There are currently more than 80 CDHC graduates around the country.

For more information about the program, visit