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American Institute of Dental Public Health mentors next generation of service-oriented dentists

Organization hopes to continue its mission of educating young dentists

February 25, 2020

By David Burger

Photo of Convention of the American Institute of Dental Public Health
Get together: Every year the American Institute of Dental Public Health holds a colloquium for dental students, residents, dentists and other dental leaders to share their perspectives on dental public health. From left, Annaliese Cothron, institute director of operations; Dr. Scott Howell, a participant in two of the institute’s internships; and Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, participate in a panel discussion at the January 2020 conference in San Antonio, Texas, on the issues of access to care for people with disabilities and special needs.
Las Vegas —Dr. David P. Cappelli, Ph.D., acknowledges that as providers, some don’t often understand difficulties that some patients face to receive needed dental care.

“It is the role of the educator to create opportunities that allow students to see some of the barriers that individuals face in accessing care,” said the professor and chair of the department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a dentist who also holds a master’s in public health and a Ph.D. in epidemiology. “Many of our students have never taken a bus. If you have not had that experience, how can one understand the issues associated with riding a bus, including transferring between buses, and getting to your destination that may be a bit of a distance from the bus line. How can one truly understand barriers to accessing care without a frame of reference?”

He answered his own question.

“The American Institute of Dental Public Health provides that frame of reference for students,” said Dr. Cappelli, chair of the board of directors of the institute.

The institute, which is in the last year of its grant, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year.

The institute offers three internships, an annual colloquium, an online resource center, a podcast series and a mentorship program with a video library of dental professionals describing their career paths. Dr. Cappelli said that he and the rest of the institute seek to provide primary care dental residents and students with educational opportunities that supplement their current learning environment.

Partner programs


The institute has several programs designed to prepare dentists, residents and dental students for public health professions by fostering educational and real-world internships.

The mission is to foster professional excellence and advance innovation in the practice and education of dental public health.

“We provide experiences that enhance leadership through collaborative relationships, learn about the role that federal agencies play in the oral health care of people living in the U.S., immerse participants in cutting-edge dental public health topics through our annual colloquium, podcasts, reference articles and papers through the online resource center,” Dr. Cappelli said.

“One of our premier events is the annual colloquium,” Dr. Cappelli said. “Past topics included dental informatics, interprofessional practice and value-based care and health equity. The colloquia convene thought-leaders, experts and practitioners from across the health care spectrum to engage the attendees on emerging concepts that will impact the practice of dental public health and dentistry in the future. The structure of each event is to have speakers interspersed with robust discussion sessions to engage the attendees and share views and perspectives.”

Introducing younger people in the dental community to challenges and opportunities is critical for those interested in public health careers, Dr. Cappelli said.

“I have spent over 30 years in dental academics and realize that as a profession, we need to engage with colleagues outside of the dental profession and hear what solutions exist that can help us to better serve patients and colleagues across the nation,” he said.

‘Public health is my passion’

Dr. Scott Howell, assistant professor and director of teledentistry at the Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health, has taken advantage of two programs offered by the institute: the Academic Leadership for Residents program and the Federal Service internship.

“Public health is my passion,” said the 2014 graduate of the dental school where he now teaches. “I’m always looking for ways to reduce disparities in care.”

Dr. Howell’s father operated a portable dental care company where he worked prior to dental school, delivering care to patients primarily at nursing homes and inner-city schools. Then, during his residency at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, he participated in a program there that treated pregnant women with substance abuse disorders.

“I asked myself, ‘What can I do for the underserved?’” he said.

After his residency, Dr. Howell accepted a job at his alma mater to help develop the university’s teledentistry program, symbolizing his commitment to expanding access to care.

He then chose to pursue a dental public health residency at UT Health San Antonio, and it was there he learned about the institute’s internships, and he eagerly applied and was accepted, hoping to connect with other like-minded individuals as well as educate himself about the dental worlds of academia and federal service.

“I was able to be exposed to topics that I wouldn’t see day-to-day in my job,” Dr. Howell said.

During the Federal Service Internship, for example, he spent a week touring the Washington, D.C., area offices of the Health Resources and Services Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“I was able to put a face to all those acronyms,” Dr. Howell said. “I learned these are people who want to make people healthier.”

Sustainability assessed

Another program the institute sponsored was the South Texas Environmental Education and Research Program, in which interns spent time along the Texas-Mexico border in an interprofessional educational environment with students from medicine, dentistry, public health and other professions.

“There are profound oral health needs in the [border] community that are not being met,” said Dr. Cappelli, who once operated a school-based oral health program that served about 10,000 children each year in 42 elementary schools in Texas’s Webb County, located on the border.

Dr. Cappelli is proud of the institute’s progress and optimistic about its future. The institute plans on expanding its role by creating additional educational opportunities for the primary care workforce, as well as focusing on the oral health care needs of rural populations, he said.

“We are mentoring the next generation of dental public health practitioners,” Dr. Cappelli said.

Dr. Jeffrey Chaffin, vice president and dental director for Delta Dental of Iowa, sits on the institute’s board because he feels that the organization fills a much-needed gap.

“The work that the institute does provides dental public health residents the ability to complement their formal training with mini-internships playing a valuable role,” he said. “I have enjoyed working with the institute. Their focus on educating the dental public health workforce complements other professional dental organizations.”

Dr. Cappelli is hopeful that the institute will get the funding it needs to continue its work.

“We are enthusiastic about the work that the institute has done over the past five years,” Dr. Cappelli said. “See how much we have accomplished over this short period of time. While the institute is in the last year of the grant, we feel strongly that the organization will be competitive for the next round of grants and if not, the programs that were created have such value that they will be able to be sustained.”