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ADA visits Navajo Nation, where Community Dental Health Coordinators' work is in the spotlight

September 11, 2018

By Michelle Manchir

Group photo in front of Navajo Nation rock
ADA at Window Rock: A delegation from the ADA visited the capital of the Navajo Nation in August. From left, Dr. Jane Grover, director of the ADA Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention; (back) Chad Olson, ADA director of state government affairs; (front) Dr. Jennifer Thompson, New Mexico Dental Association president; Dr. Tom Schripsema, executive director of the New Mexico Dental Association; Jonathan Nez, vice president of the Navajo Nation; Dr. Joseph P. Crowley, ADA president; Dr. Luciana Sweis, ADA CDHC project manager consultant; Mae-Gilene Begay, director of the Navajo Community Health Representative and Outreach Program; and Dr. Steve Geiermann, ADA senior manager on access and community oral health.
Window Rock, Ariz. — ADA President Joseph P. Crowley and a contingent of ADA and New Mexico Dental Association staff visited the capital seat of the Navajo Nation Aug. 20 to pay tribute to the positive impact that Community Health Representatives trained as Community Dental Health Coordinators have made in serving as oral health resources for the serving Navajo people.

The Navajo Community Health Representatives are community health workers who work with residents by serving as interpreters, offering health screenings, providing home visits, encouraging preventive activities and more.  They represent one resource that the Navajo Nation has been using to improve the oral health and overall health of the Navajo people.

As early as 2014, organized dentistry and the Navajo Nation began collaborating to help improve the community's oral health care, in part by educating Community Health Representatives about the importance of oral health across the lifespan, as well as by recruiting them to become certified as Community Dental Health Coordinators. The CDHC cohort at Central New Mexico Community College that started in January of 2017 included four Community Health Representatives from the Navajo Nation.

During his visit, Dr. Crowley was able to find out firsthand how these CDHC-certified Community Health Representatives have had a positive effect on oral health in the Navajo Nation, where challenges remain prevalent. Tooth decay is four times more prevalent among Native American children than white children, according to the Indian Health Service.

"Having CDHCs with the cultural knowledge and understanding of the Navajo community helps build strong connections, and trust, with patients here," said Dr. Crowley. "The focus is on community-based education and pushing for prevention."

Photo of Dr. Crowley with Mae-Gilene Begay and Jonathan Nez at the citation presentation
Honored: Mae-Gilene Begay receives a ADA Presidential Citation from ADA President Joseph P. Crowley during the Association's visit to Navajo Nation. At left is Jonathan Nez, vice president of the Navajo Nation.
During the visit, Dr. Crowley met with Jonathan Nez, vice president of the Navajo Nation, who oversees the health and wellness of the tribe.  

Mr. Nez shared his support for the Navajo Community Health Representative and Outreach Program and their efforts to incorporate oral health into the overall health practices of Navajo people across the lifespan, from pregnant women to esteemed elders, according to Dr. Crowley.

Mr. Nez spoke of the challenges of residing in a food desert, where fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables are not always readily available. He noted progress in promoting less processed foods and drinking more water, while moving  junk food away from the checkout lines within reservation grocery stores. He cited the recent restoration of funding for the Community Health Representative program that had previously proposed to be cut from the federal budget.

Mr. Nez thanked the ADA for its efforts to increase Indian Health Service funding to attract more providers and offer additional loan repayment incentives, as well as encouraging a more efficient credentialing system for providers willing to serve on the reservation, Dr. Crowley said.

During the visit, Dr. Crowley presented four ADA presidential citations during a luncheon, acknowledging the success of the CDHC program on the Navajo Nation. Mae-Gilene Begay, the director of the Navajo Community Health Representative and Outreach Program, was honored for her efforts to improve the oral health of all Native Americans. Dr. Sandra Aretino, chief executive officer, and Dr. Jason Price, dental director, both of Tsehootsooi Medical Center, were honored for their willingness to support the four CHRs in their CDHC internships. Dr. Tom Schripsema, executive director, New Mexico Dental Association, was honored for his long-standing support of improving the oral health of Native Americans in New Mexico.

For more information about the CDHC program, visit ADA.org/CDHC.