Since the coronavirus pandemic began, doctors, nurses and essential workers within the health care system have put their own lives at risk to care for others. Our collective gratitude goes out to each of them, and to all essential workers on the front lines of this global crisis.
The challenges before us are great, and as we work to address them we must not forget to examine systemic societal problems that have led to certain populations being at greater risk for severe and deadly COVID-19 cases.
Health inequities due to social, economic or environmental disadvantages often result in unhealthy people. Lack of health insurance or access to affordable, quality care because of who you are or where you live leads to people falling behind in necessary, regular checkups for disease prevention, leading to poor health outcomes and unhealthy populations in which diseases such as the coronavirus cause devastation.
We know that oral disease causes pain and suffering for millions of people. We also know delaying dental care affects overall health and wellbeing, and it is linked to serious diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
The mouth serves as the gateway to the body, and clear evidence reveals that early treatment wards off future problems. Still, many people have not seen a dentist in more than a year. In some cases, it’s more than a decade.
We believe making it easier for people to access high quality and affordable dental care is critical to improving overall health outcomes. This is why in 2013, with enthusiastic and generous support of local and statewide community leaders, institutions, and donors, A.T. Still University established the Missouri School of Dentistry & Oral Health. Our third- and fourth-year students work alongside faculty and staff to treat patients at the University’s St. Louis Dental Center, an innovative partnership between ATSU-MOSDOH and Affinia Healthcare. Collaboratively, our team provides comprehensive dental care at no cost or on a sliding scale based on a patient’s ability to pay.
The St. Louis Dental Center, at 1500 Park Ave., is a unique service provider and clinical training facility. ATSU’s dental program attracts qualified students who express an interest in community and public health settings. ATSU-MOSDOH is well positioned to address another systemic problem: the lack of health professionals, doctors, and dentists, who are of color or multilingual.
With an eye to the future, ATSU’s Dreamline Pathways program was specifically developed for outreach within the St. Louis community to encourage students to imagine themselves as doctors and dentists.
In addition to developing the dream, our program helps students identify educational paths needed to achieve their career goals.
By increasing the number of oral health care professionals and improving access to oral health care services, more people receive needed care and communities become better educated on the importance of oral health and its impact on overall health.
Combined with ATSU’s mission to serve the underserved, these efforts continue to build toward creating health equity for all, an essential feature of any high-functioning society.
Our goals to serve underserved populations and create a more diverse health profession are strategic approaches to eliminating health disparities, and better preparing all populations to withstand future health challenges.
Clinton Normore is vice president of diversity, inclusion and equity at A.T. Still University of Health Sciences. Dwight E. McLeod, DDS, MS, is dean of A.T. Still University’s Missouri School of Dentistry & Oral Health.