Irish dentists explore CDHC course to implement program back home

 Dr. Nuala Carney
Dr. Carney
Hickory, N.C. — A small college at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina has created a course that, as one student remarked, “opened up a new way of looking at my local community.”

That student is Dr. Siobhan Murray, a dentist in Ireland, who along with her friend and fellow Irish dentist, Dr. Nuala Carney, enrolled in Catawba Valley Community College’s Community Dental Health Coordinator course to see how the successful ADA-founded program could improve the oral health of patients back on the Emerald Isle.

Irish challenges

“Ireland doesn’t have a specific training program like the CDHC program at present,” said Dr. Carney, who has worked as a general dentist in Dublin on and off for the past 30 years, and also taught dental undergraduates at Trinity College Dublin. “The CDHC training seems to be more practical and hands-on in not only educating patients, but also actively encouraging and supporting them as they seek to access and undergo treatment. There is definitely a practical emphasis on reaching out to vulnerable or marginalized members of communities, helping patients find a dental home and removing whatever barriers exist to them undergoing treatment if possible. The statistics showing the significant uptake in attendances at clinics following projects carried out by CDHCs is a powerful testament of this.”

In 2006, the ADA set up a task force to determine how to best meet the needs of dentally underserved rural, urban and American Indian communities. Later, in 2009, the ADA established the Community Dental Health Coordinator pilot program as one component in the effort to break through the barriers that prevent people from receiving regular dental care and enjoying optimal oral health.

 Dr. Murray
Dr. Murray
In October 2010, the first class of 10 CDHC students completed training in Tempe, Arizona, and Norman, Oklahoma, and began working in tribal clinics, urban and rural Federally Qualified Health Centers, Indian Health Service facilities and other settings.

The ADA is currently providing technical assistance to 18 educational institutions with more than 600 graduates over the years, and 43 states have either a CDHC school program, a graduate of the program or a student in the program.

Across the pond

Dr. Carney first heard about the CDHC program when she attended the ADA FDI World Dental Congress in San Francisco in 2019, as a representative of the Irish Dental Association.

“I was able to attend the Oral Health Forum at the very end of the conference and heard Dr. Jane Grover of the ADA speak about the CDHC training program, amongst other things,” Dr. Carney said. “I was really impressed by what a simple, novel and practical idea it was, and particularly by the statistics showing how effective the training program had been to date. We spoke briefly after the session and again a few weeks later online, at which point Dr. Grover very kindly suggested the possibility for an Irish dental health worker to participate in a future training program.”

Dr. Carney brought up the topic to her local dental society, where it was decided that it might be best for one or two dentists to participate to see if the training might be transferable to an Irish environment. She recruited her friend, Dr. Murray, the owner of two general dental practices in Donegal Town and Letterkenny, both in County Donegal.

Dr. Murray jumped at the chance. The two met decades ago on a month-long mission in the Himalayas, educating and treating villagers with no access to oral health or hygiene.

“I also spent three months, subsequently, carrying out similar work in Georgetown, Guyana,” Dr. Murray said. “These experiences made me aware of the benefits of bringing oral health education and dentistry to the community. Oral health education and support availability is minimal in our country, which means that vulnerable groups such as children, the hospitalized and the elderly are unsupported.”

Building bridges

Although the 32-week course was online, Catawba Valley Community College’s Community Dental Health Coordinator program — first established in 2019 — immersed the two Irish dentists in how to implement a program from the ground up. They studied and learned alongside U.S. dental providers who impressed them with their zeal during Zoom meetings and other online discussion forums.

“I am so impressed by the enthusiasm, dedication and determination of the other CDHC participants to really get involved in so many different aspects of helping patients of all ages, cultures and backgrounds improve their access to dental care and oral health education in their communities,” Dr. Carney said.

Kay Sitterson, an adjunct faculty member at the college, said the American students learned a great deal from their Irish counterparts.

“I think the takeaway for our students is that their systems, their problems and issues sounded like ours,” Ms. Sitterson said.

Dr. Carney seeks to introduce the program back home, excited to see how lessons learned in North Carolina can be applied in her area.

“Seeking out this cohort of patients and actively encouraging and supporting them to seek and undergo treatment as required will be a key challenge — and this is where I would see this CDHC training as being hugely beneficial both to patients and dental practices alike,” she said. “Giving hygienists and dental nurses the opportunity and training to liaise directly and effectively with patients and facilitating their access to dental care in a new environment and system could make an enormous difference to the success of this scheme, and improve acceptance of the scheme by the profession.”

Dr. Murray looks back at the program fondly, hoping that more dentists from Eire can collaborate with American dental providers more in the future, if given the opportunity.

“I could see the potential for us, here in Ireland, to build a working relationship with our American colleagues,” Dr. Murray said. “[We can] learn from their experiences and share our community problems with them in order to find solutions to improve delivery of a much-needed service.”