By Kate Beard
With the recent onslaught of congressional-enacted cuts to funds for the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), Title VII Health Professions programs, student aid programs, and the elimination of Medicaid dental benefits for millions of low-income children, what better time to initiate grassroots action? The first-ever American Dental Education Association and American Association for Dental Research (AADR) Field Advocacy Workshop held at a university took place at the University of Pittsburgh on Monday, February 20. The workshop was an offshoot of Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, which is also jointly held by ADEA and AADR.
The day-long event led participants to a better understanding of the legislative process and the effects of current political climate and outside influences such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While the workshop presented an overview of advocacy on the federal level, it was tailored more closely to address state and local issues in dentistry and dental education.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has three dental schools, yet many nationwide issues have a profound effect on dentistry in the state. The audience attending the workshop was composed of a diverse group of researchers, deans, practicing dentists, and representatives of various governmental and dental organizations. Their common purpose was to learn about influencing public policy to enhance oral health, dental education, and research. Some of the high-ranking issues discussed were community water fluoridation, special needs dentistry, access to care by underserved populations such as those in rural areas, and student loan reimbursement.
Thomas W. Braun, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s dental school, set the tone in his opening remarks, quoting Charles Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” He cited the opening from A Tale of Two Cities to illustrate the divergent forces of strength and frailty that are shaping the current state of dentistry. Braun noted the immense accumulation of scientific knowledge over the last 15 years.
“We’re sitting on a mountain top of information,” he said. His counterpoint was the eight percent reduction to the health care budget. He stressed that the reduction, which is the first in 25 years, will stifle the potential energy for progress in health care in general, and dentistry in particular.
Speaker Marjorie Jeffcoat, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, emphasized the importance of constructing a clear and concise message when meeting with legislators. Jeffcoat said the message should have a broad appeal while relating directly to individual initiatives that will catch a legislator’s attention.
Legislation was not the only focus of the workshop. Regulation and strategic alliances were other suggested approaches for advancing the objectives of dentistry. A panel of advocates from Pennsylvania presented Improving Access to Oral Health in Pennsylvania. Michael Meit, director of the Center for Rural Health Practice at the University of Pittsburgh, addressed the effects of unmet care on rural Pennsylvanians. Meit said access to significantly fewer dental health professionals, combined with poverty, lower insurance rates, and geographic isolation, contribute to the deterioration of oral health in rural areas.
The workshop concluded with a session titled Raising Your Voice Now: Two Advocacy Messages. Robert Collins, deputy executive director of the International and American Associations for Dental Research, and Robert Weyant, professor and chair of the Department of Dental Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, presented these messages. Collins spoke about reauthorization and fiscal year 2007 appropriations for NIDCR. He said that appropriations for NIH, which is the primary agency responsible for conducting and supporting biomedical research, are particularly important for 2007, based on the success from investment in biomedical research and cost-saving preventions such as fluoridation and salivary diagnostics. Collins said it is important to nurture opportunity while attempting to keep the budget in line with the cost of inflation.
Weyant, director of a NIDCR-sponsored research project studying oral health disparities in Appalachia. spoke about increasing the number of dental providers in rural and underserved communities. His project’s goal is to distinguish the relation, or lack thereof, among individual, family, and geosocial factors associated with orodental disease and tooth loss in rural Appalachian youth between 9 and 18 years of age.
ADEA associate executive director and director of the ADEA Center for Public Policy and Advocacy Jack Bresch made a point during his presentation that was repeated throughout the day: achieve incrementally. He advised the audience to make regular contact with state and federal representatives on important issues, pointing out that it is better to make small progress over a period of time, rather than expecting a major breakthrough in support all at once.
--Kate Beard is a communications specialist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine