HCMP Senior Researches Ways to Reduce Disparities in Dental Care

DECEMBER 1, 2014 – For her senior thesis, Whitney Dockrey (NHS’15), a health care management & policy major, is examining ways to improve access to oral health care within vulnerable and underserved populations.

She believes that oral health plays a fundamental role in one’s ability to succeed in life.

“I do not want people missing opportunities just because they could not access proper oral health care,” she says.

Dental Disparities

A citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a co-founder of the Georgetown Native American Student Council, Dockrey is passionate about health and education for Native Americans.

Growing up in rural Oklahoma, she witnessed socioeconomic disparities in access to oral and overall physical and mental health within this group, but says disparities are much worse in other areas of the United States like in the Southwest regions and on rural reservations.

"Native Americans have some of the worst dental disparities in the United States, and the Indian Health Service is understaffed with dentists," says Dockrey.  

According to an IHS survey on clinical staffing and recruiting, dentists are considered the third most difficult type of clinicians to recruit by administrators, surpassed only by specialty and primary care physicians.

Dental Therapists

Dockrey’s research suggests that one approach to extend access to dental care within underserved groups is to train dental therapists.

They are members of the dental team who work under the supervision of dentists, but can also provide preventative and restorative dental care, particularly for children and adolescents.

“It’s a way to get dental care to those who will otherwise not receive it and cannot afford it,” says Dockrey.

Improving Health

The model, which has been in place in New Zealand for more than 90 years and is in place in over 50 countries worldwide, has so far been adopted by only three states since 2005 – Alaska, Maine, and Minnesota.

“I believe it is a great solution for those seeking care, especially in low-income and rural communities,” Dockrey says. “I also believe it has, can, and will reduce emergency room costs and chronic disease rates in these populations.”

Oral Health Education

One of the notable things that Dockrey discovered is how much oral health care costs could be reduced if people were afforded oral health education and prevention services.

“People would not have to seek tertiary care or use emergency department services,” she says.

Upon graduation, Dockrey plans to pursue a dual degree program for law and health administration.

“I am incredibly grateful for my Georgetown experience,” she says. “I have learned so much from some of the nation’s most intelligent and caring professors.”

By Masha Mikey (S’15)