Zufall and NJ Department of Health Rural Oral Health Conference Draws 300-Plus Learners

Zufall Health, in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH), hosted virtually the Fourth Annual Rural Oral Health Conference (ROHC), on Friday, November 18. The day-long continuing education (CE) program provided more than 300 registrants in 45 U.S. states and around the world with expert insights about oral health in rural communities.

Why does oral health in rural communities matter? Three of Zufall’s seven counties (Hunterdon, Sussex, and Warren) and about 60 percent of New Jersey’s land qualify as rural. Compared with their nonrural counterparts, America’s rural residents have fewer natural teeth, more cavities, and less frequent visits to a dentist. Several ROHC speakers quoted Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop: “You’re not healthy without good oral health.” This seminal remark highlights the connection between the mouth and the wellbeing of the heart, lungs, and the rest of the body.

Themed “Diversity and Inclusion: Addressing the Needs of Marginalized Populations in Rural Communities,” the ROHC provided a close look at diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, income, spirituality, and ability and how these characteristics also impact access to oral health.

Keynote speaker Deborah Brown, DMD, MHA, FACHE, set the tone for the day with her presentation, “Diversity and the Impact on Oral Health: A Personal Journey.” Brown is the chief executive officer of My Community Dental Centers, the largest nonprofit dental safety net provider in Michigan. She identifies as African American and LGBTQ and is a U.S. military veteran.

Brown told the audience about her early experiences with oral health care growing up in the urban area of Paterson, New Jersey where, like in many rural communities, “regular health care was scarce and oral health care was a luxury” and she didn’t receive fluoride or sealants.

For Brown, racial and ethnic barriers to care were also significant. She recalls her first dental visit at age 5: “The dentist was African American and it was my first time seeing any doctor that looked like me…Years later, when I was deciding on a career choice, I looked back on my visits with [him]. He remained the only African American dentist I ever had until I entered dental school. Representation matters. And it’s important for advancing oral health in vulnerable and underserved communities. It builds trust and allows a young child to see themselves in that role.”

Among the ROHC’s other speakers were Muhammed Hatim, Ph.D, DMin, CADC, a retired imam and substance abuse counselor who spoke about the role of oral health in the Muslim faith; Maria Czarniecki, DMD, a dentist who discussed how oral health providers can best serve patients with special needs; and Andres Renfigo Escobar, CDHC, RDH, DDS, a Zufall Community Dental Health Coordinator who explained the relationship between food insecurity and cavities in children.

“With backgrounds in government agencies, community health centers, nonprofit organizations, and private dentals practices, our speakers brought a wealth of knowledge and variety of perspectives to engage learners to develop action plans leading to positive oral health change in their own communities,” said Sam Wakim, DMD, MPH, Zufall’s chief dental officer, who leads the ROHC planning committee each year.

As usual, the ROHC was held in honor of National Rural Health Day (NRHD), a celebration of rural America’s community-minded spirit and health care providers. The National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health leads the recognition of NRHD on the third Thursday of November each year.

In addition to our esteemed speakers, this year’s ROHC was made possible with support from our partners, the NJDOH and the American Dental Association; platinum partner CareQuest Institute for Oral Health; and gold partners Aetna, BD, BencoDental, Delta Dental, Fingerpaint, Fulton Bank, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, LabCorp, Liberty Dental Plan, United Healthcare, and Valley Bank.

Conference resources and upcoming CE opportunities are available on Zufall’s website.

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