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Dentistry aides focus on state’s rural areas

Residents of New Mexico’s small towns and rural areas, where dentists are scarce, can benefit from a new program aimed at improving access to oral health care.

Graduates of the Community Dental Health Coordinator program offered at Central New Mexico Community College are helping to bring basic dental services to rural and low-income communities around the state.

Dr. Tom Schripsema, executive director of New Mexico Dental Association said many of the state’s smaller communities don’t have the population to support a full-time dentist. Without access to dental care, people often end up in severe pain or suffer serious illness, many seek help in hospital emergency rooms which are not equipped to treat dental problems, Schripsema said.

CNM began offering the training in 2015, based on legislation passed in 2011. The first five Community Dental Health Coordinator graduates are now working in communities and clinics and private dental offices throughout New Mexico, including on the Navajo Reservation. The second class of nine students is scheduled to graduate in December.

They teach children and adults about oral health, hygiene and nutrition. They coordinate transportation and help patients make dental appointments or receive exams. They can help patients in obtaining Medicaid or using sliding fee scales to help pay for treatment. They are trained to take x-rays, apply dental sealants or temporary fillings, do diagnostic tests, and they can assist visiting dentists in patient care, Schripsema said.

They are not permitted to perform surgical functions such as tooth extractions.

The students come from a variety of backgrounds, said Tammy Whitney, clinical coordinator for the program at CNM. Some have already trained as dental assistants or hygienists. Several have been working as Community Health Representatives on the Navajo Reservation, providing basic health promotion and disease prevention services.

She sees great potential for the role that Community Dental Health Coordinators can play in promoting better oral health and preventing associated diseases.

“They can work with school systems, or work with nursing homes, do community outreach by teaching caregivers about oral health, do screenings and help get people to dental offices when they need it,” Whitney said.

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