For this month's Ka'ana Mana'o, we asked Denise Cohen, University of Hawaii Maui College associate professor of nursing and allied health co-chairwoman, to share information about the college's dental hygiene and dental assisting programs and how students are receiving real-world experience helping patients at the Maui Oral Health Center.
Healthy smiles are important - not only to make people feel more confident about themselves, but for overall health as well. That's one of the first lessons students in our dental hygiene and dental assisting programs learn, and many are surprised to discover the serious health consequences when people don't receive adequate dental care.
Did you know that lack of pre-natal dental care can lead to premature birth? That some research suggests gum disease may be linked to cardiovascular disease? This is why taking care of our teeth isn't just important for cosmetic reasons, it's key for preventative care. That's especially true in Hawaii, which placed 50th in the country for child dental care.
The college's dental programs prepare students for this field, but what truly makes the programs unique is that students get to practice what they learn at the Maui Oral Health Center, gaining real-world experience while providing affordable and accessible oral/dental health care to the underserved, low-income and uninsured families of Maui County.
One dental hygiene student shared that "I was very excited when I found that UH Maui College was offering a dental hygiene program. The program has allowed me to stay on the island with my family while pursuing my degree. The program benefits the community by offering low-cost dental exams and cleanings for eligible community members through our clinic, as well as preparing students to work in the community as dental professionals."
In our struggling economy, careers in dental hygiene and dental assisting are bright spots for students eager for opportunities to transition out of lower-paying jobs, and for many the degree simply wouldn't be possible if it were not offered in Maui County.
This intersection of education and community service is only possible through the continuing support of many community members. The origins of the Maui Oral Health Center began 10 years ago when Maui County District Health Officer Lorrin Pang and Dr. Fumio Tsuji advised the college that one-third of our residents lacked basic oral care. Fast forward to 2012, and you'll find that more than 50 Maui dentists, 30 organizations and 100 donors have contributed to this success, which benefits students and residents. Last year, the center provided dental care to more than 3,000 patients in more than 11,000 appointments, and by May 2013, approximately 176 dental assistants and 19 dental hygienists will complete their respective programs.
But the economy has impacted the funding that once supported the Maui Oral Health Center. It has always been a collaborative project, sponsored by the members of the Maui County Dental Health Alliance, the college, Maui County, Hui No Ke Ola Pono and the Maui District Health Office.
Budgetary concerns are forcing state and county agencies to rethink their contributions to the center, which concerns our students who depend on their work at the center to complete their degrees.
Our leaders must make hard decisions, but given what we know about the need for dental care for Maui County residents, the serious health consequences that stem from inadequate dental care, and the benefit of preparing students for well-paying jobs in a growing field, it's not a question of whether we can afford to continue the work of the Maui Oral Health Center. It's whether we can afford not to?
* Clyde Sakamoto is chancellor of the University of Hawaii Maui College. Ka'ana Mana'o, which means "sharing thoughts," is scheduled to appear on the fourth Sunday of each month. It is prepared with assistance from UH-Maui College staff and is intended to provide the community of Maui County information about opportunities available through the college at its Kahului campus and its education centers.