RADM Denise Canton, Senior Policy Advisor, Office of the Surgeon General (OSG)
Former Health and Human Services Secretary, Tommy G. Thompson once said that, “By improving our nation's oral health, we improve our nation's overall health." Speaking to an audience of nearly 100 dental students, pre-dental students, faculty, and community members on Saturday at the University of North Carolina (UNC), RADM Denise Canton echoed these words, but added one caveat: if we do not address them now, socioeconomic, racial, and age-related disparities will hinder our Nation from achieving its goals in health.
The RADM, an Assistant Surgeon General and Senior Policy Advisor to U.S. Surgeon General, VADM Regina Benjamin, gave her address as part of a presentation at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry in Chapel Hill, NC. Her speech, titled, “Oral Health in America: Disparities and Solutions,” was the keynote address for the UNC chapter of the Student National Dental Association’s annual “Impressions Program.” The speech outlined the current setbacks for oral health care, and then called for more dentists to join the fight to eliminate the U.S. oral health gap.
“Poor children suffer twice as many dental caries [cavities] as their more affluent peers, and their disease is more likely to be untreated,” RADM Canton told the audience. At the same time, she charged, “there has been a lack of progress in filling the underserved areas with dental health professionals.”
“Oral health is an essential and integral component of general health throughout life,” she continued. Not paying proper attention to this issue can be detrimental, sometimes leading to, “needless pain and suffering, difficulty speaking, chewing, and swallowing, increased cost of care, loss of self-esteem, decreased productivity… and in extreme cases, death.”
RADM Canton asserted that to combat these effects, health providers must start addressing them in patients at an early age.
“As we consider the state of oral health in the United States, we are particularly concerned about the impact on children. Emphasis is and must be on preventing dental diseases early in life to prevent potential life-long oral and general health issues.”
According to a study she quoted, “Over 50 percent of 5- to 9-year-old children have at least one cavity or filling, and that proportion increases to 78 percent among 17-year-olds.”
And in a child’s formative years, these effects have implications that extend beyond the tooth and mouth region. “Not only will the child have challenges eating, the child may also not be able to play, learn or sleep normally. He or she may not be willing to fully express emotions because of embarrassment over decayed or missing teeth.”
RADM Canton (center, left) and Director of Commissioned Corps Recruitment, CAPT Dean Coppola (center, right) pose for a photo with UNC School of Dentistry Dean, Dr. Jane Weintraub (far right) and Associate Professor, Dr. Sylvia Frazier-Bowers (far left).
Using the example of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps and the type of work its dental officers do with the Indian Health Service, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Immigration Health Services Corps, RADM Canton described how dentists could make tangible contributions to serving the underserved.
This message was received well.
“It is always inspiring to hear more about health care disparities to reinvigorate our mission and actions to serve our communities better,” said Dr. Sylvia Frazier-Bowers, an Assistant Professor of Orthodontics at the school. “The Rear Admiral provided us with many new points of information about disparities in health and the efforts of the USPHS to address these disparities, and it seemed to be just what the students wanted and needed to hear.”
The “Impressions Program” is an innovative recruitment program that focuses primarily on increasing the number of minority and underserved students who choose to enroll in dental school or pursue professions in dentistry.
Both Dr. Jane Weintraub, Dean of the UNC School of Dentistry and Dr. Barbara Rimer, Dean of the School of Public Health, were in attendance.
RADM Canton’s visit served as the kick-off to a new partnership between the USPHS and the University of North Carolina’s health professional programs.
All USPHS officers are encouraged to contact CAPT Dean Coppola (Dean.Copola@hhs.gov) if they are interested in supporting or learning more about the partnership with UNC.