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University of Mississippi Pioneers Oral Health Education for School-Age Children

Led by Elizabeth Carr, DHA, MDH, RDH, the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry launches an innovative study targeting 12- to 14-year-olds to enhance oral hygiene education. The initiative aims to assess the effectiveness of educating students and their caregivers in reducing future tooth decay and improving overall dental health.

Elizabeth Carr, DHA, MDH, RDH

The University of Mississippi School of Dentistry in Jackson is pioneering an initiative aimed at enhancing oral health among school-age children in Mississippi. Led by Elizabeth Carr, DHA, MDH, RDH, and her team, the study marks a crucial milestone in oral health research, targeting 12- to 14-year-olds with an innovative approach to oral hygiene education. The study seeks to evaluate the effectiveness of different educational approaches in promoting good oral hygiene among students and their caregivers at South Delta High School and Middle School. It aims to determine if educating students about the importance of oral health can lower their risk of future tooth decay, and if extending this education to their parents or guardians has a similar impact.

Carr is professor and chair of dental hygiene and director of the Mississippi Population Oral Health Collaborative at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) School of Dentistry in Jackson. A member of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association and the American Dental Education Association, she was invited to participate in the 2023 ADEA Thought Leader Assembly on “Imagining Oral Health Education for a Connected World.” Carr was also selected as a UMMC School of Health-Related Professions Alumnus of the Year and a “Healthcare Hero” by the Mississippi Business Journal.

Sunstar Ebrief spoke with Carr about her career in dental hygiene and what she hopes to discover through this groundbreaking study.

  • What was your path to becoming a dental hygienist and then a dental hygiene educator?

I grew up in a small town in the Mississippi Delta called Cleveland. We had about six dentists, and all of their dental hygienists were wonderful people. My cousin Charlotte was also a hygienist and she influenced me greatly in this career path. But what really influenced me was two things. First was the thrill of the before and after, the immediate gratification of a dirty mouth vs a clean mouth grabbed my heartstrings and wouldn’t let go. The second was being able to treat my own patients and serve eight new people every day, guaranteeing that my days would never be boring. I worked in Cleveland for several years after graduation and then married and moved to Jackson, Mississippi. I reconnected with my instructors at UMMC and they asked me to consider teaching. Well, I caught the teaching bug. I’ve never looked back and have loved every minute of teaching future dental hygienists.

  • What unique challenges to oral health exist in the state of Mississippi?

I think that the main barriers to care that people experience across the country are amplified here in Mississippi. We know that poverty correlates strongly with oral health issues, and Mississippi consistently rates among the poorest states in the United States. Being limited with financial resources hinders dental care accessibility for patients in Mississippi. The rural nature of the state leads to another barrier due to limited providers, long distances between rural providers, and lack of transportation. Mississippi has one of the highest rates of uninsured populations in the country, forcing patients to wait until an emergency before they seek dental care. We also face higher prevalence of the risk factors causing oral disease … things like limited access to fluoridated water, tobacco use, and poor diet. The children in Mississippi face disparities in oral health because of limited access to pediatric dental care, limited oral health education in schools, and higher rates of sugary snack consumption.

  • What do you hope to learn from your study on the effects of oral health education on children’s dental health?

We are seeking to learn whether oral hygiene instructions (OHI), OHI and action learning of oral hygiene techniques, or OHI plus action learning with parental involvement affects the caries experience of middle school and high school students across 30 months. We want to follow the students across the time frame to evaluate their decayed, missing due to caries, and filled teeth scores. We are also surveying the students to assess their perceptions of oral health barriers to care. It’s a unique study because of the age of the children and the long time frame.

  • What do you think the future of the dental hygiene profession will hold?

We have a bright future as a profession! I believe the focus on prevention will grow stronger and dental hygienists will play a prominent role in promoting oral health literacy and disease prevention strategies in our respective communities. Innovation is booming in our profession right now, and I don’t see that slowing down any time soon. Hygienists are becoming more culturally diverse, and interprofessional collaboration is growing in all healthcare fields. I am hopeful we can optimize efficiency in dental practices and serve our patients to the best of our abilities by enjoying an expanded scope of practice someday.

And of course, there’s technology. Dental hygiene has changed more in 5 years than any of us could have expected. Just looking through Dimensions of Dental Hygiene articles proves how much things have changed, and technology is a conduit for that change. I also anticipate teledentistry to continue to grow as our technology improves with each iteration. All in all, it’s a great time to be a dental hygienist!

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