UNE and partners collaborate to promote oral health at Maine Head Start sites

Students from UNE COM and the WCHP provide oral health screenings at the Brunswick Head Start, Oct. 31, 2019.
Students from UNE's College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Westbrook College of Health Professions provide oral health screenings at the Brunswick Head Start, Oct. 31, 2019.

The University of New England Dental Hygiene program, College of Osteopathic Medicine (COM), College of Dental Medicine (CDM), Maine Area Health Education Center (AHEC) Network, and the Partnership for Children’s Oral Health have partnered to prevent oral disease in Head Start programs across Maine.

The comprehensive, federal Head Start program promotes school readiness in children from low-income families, through age five, by supporting their health and emotional, social, nutritional, and psychological development.

In Maine, there has been a particular challenge for Head Starts to meet the program’s oral health requirements, due to the shortage of dental providers in many areas of the state. To tackle that challenge, UNE has piloted its own Head Start Oral Health Clinics in the state’s rural communities.

“Over the last two years, UNE has built a model to promote oral health in elementary schools in rural Maine, so we were able to easily expand the model to include Head Start Oral Health Clinics,” said Marji Harmer-Beem, R.D.H., M.S., director of UNE’s Dental Hygiene program.

At the clinics, all children receive an oral health screening and fluoride varnish, a lesson about achieving good oral hygiene, and information for their parents on how to find trusted dental providers for their children.

Parents are provided with a report outlining each child’s oral health following the end of each clinic. These reports detail general oral health status, as well as concerns for each child, including tooth decay or infections. Parents are also given information on how to find a dental provider based on their insurance status.

The work is part of a broader effort of the Partnership for Children’s Oral Health to increase awareness and promote oral health in rural Maine, where dental access is often limited or nonexistent. The AHEC Network, a workforce development program aimed at alleviating health care workforce shortages, is helping remedy that.

The network provides opportunities for UNE health professions students to get out into rural Maine and work with underserved populations through the Care for the Underserved Pathway (CUP) AHEC Scholars Honors Distinction Program.

“There are entire counties in Maine without a single dentist currently accepting new MaineCare patients, which is why we’ve made it a point to integrate oral health into the curriculum of our program,” said Ian Imbert, M.P.H., manager of the CUP AHEC Scholars Program. “All of our CUP AHEC Scholars have an opportunity to staff one of our children’s oral health clinics."

The Head Start Oral Health Clinics were piloted this year in Maine’s Midcoast region. In May, UNE CUP AHEC Scholars traveled to Waldo County on a rural health immersion and held oral health clinics at five Waldo Country Head Starts.

“As a future physician interested working in primary care, knowing how to perform oral health screenings will help me become a better provider who will be able to not just treat illness, but prevent it, too,” said Sujaay Jagannathan (D.O., ’22), who helped staff the Waldo County Head Start Oral Health Clinics.

Nearly 80 children enrolled in Waldo County Head Starts received oral health screenings and fluoride varnishes on that trip.

Most recently, in late October, UNE dental hygiene, social work, and osteopathic medicine students traveled to Head Starts in Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, where nearly 100 children were screened and received fluoride varnishes.

“The health professions students and their instructors at UNE are making positive impacts on the health of these children,” said Katherine Hiza, health and nutrition coordinator for the Midcoast Maine Community Action Program, which covers Head Starts in Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties. “Many of these children may not be seeing a dentist regularly, so these visits help prevent anyone from falling through the cracks.”

While the Head Start model was being piloted in Maine’s Midcoast region this fall, two UNE health professions students and Maine AHEC CUP Scholars worked on a concurrent project that will help expand the oral health clinics to Head Starts in other parts of the state. 

Amy Courtney (D.O., ’22) and Chloe Eisenhuar (D.M.D., ’21) spent their fall semesters working together to perform a needs assessment of Head Starts in Maine, evaluating the barriers they are experiencing in meeting their families’ oral health needs.

“So far, the reports that we’ve collected in the field corroborate broader data that shows about four in 10 Maine children have cavities by third grade,” said Becca Matusovich, director of the Partnership for Children’s Oral Health. “We look forward to supporting the expansion of this effort to partner with other Head Starts around the state.”

The next set of Head Start Oral Health Clinics are scheduled for spring break in March.

The Partnership for Children’s Oral Health is supported through the Sadie and Harry Davis Foundation, Northeast Delta Dental, Betterment Fund, Maine Community Foundation, and the Maine Oral Health Funders. Funding from the New England Public Health Training Center has also helped support this work.

UNE students, accompanied by Courtney Vannah, assistant clinical professor, Oct. 29, 2019.
UNE students, accompanied by Courtney Vannah, assistant clinical professor in UNE’s Dental Hygiene program, at the Head Start in Waldoboro, Maine, Oct. 29, 2019.