Schweitzer Fellows expand ECU’s Prenatal Oral Health Program (pOHP)

Dispelling myths can be an uphill battle, but dental students Alexandra Davis ‘19 and Ljiljana Karan ’18 plan to give it their best as 2016-2017 Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) Foundation Schweitzer Fellows.

As 2016-2017 Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) Foundation Schweitzer Fellows, Ljiljana Karan ’18 (at left) and Alexandra Davis ’19 will expand on the Prenatal Oral Health Program (pOHP) established by Schweitzer Fellows last year.

As 2016-2017 Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) Foundation Schweitzer Fellows, Ljiljana Karan ’18 (at left) and Alexandra Davis ’19 will expand on the Prenatal Oral Health Program (pOHP) established by Schweitzer Fellows last year.

“There are so many myths surrounding oral health care during pregnancy,” said Davis. “So many people, including healthcare providers, believe that pregnant women should not receive dental treatment or be exposed to any radiographic imaging during pregnancy, but the scientific literature says otherwise.”

Davis and Karan want to reach as many providers and patients as possible with the message that pregnancy doesn’t hurt the teeth or make them fall out and that dental care during pregnancy is safe and can help moms have healthier babies.

To accomplish this, the Fellows will build upon the Prenatal Oral Health Program (pOHP) brought to ECU from the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Dentistry last year by ECU dental students and Schweitzer Fellows Mary Bec Keith ‘18 and Kaitlyn Anderson Spencer ’18 and their faculty mentor, Dr. Linda May.

The multi-media materials provided by pOHP contain research-based information on oral diseases, medications that are safe during pregnancy, nutrition, oral hygiene, and infant oral health.

Last year’s project launched an inter-professional partnership between the School of Dental Medicine and the ECU Brody School of Medicine Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN) Clinic. Keith and Spencer presented awareness training on the importance of prenatal oral health care for 80 Brody School of Medicine students and 20 obstetrics/gynecology residents.

The training has significantly increased the number of pregnant women referred to the dental school for treatment, the number of OB/GYN residents and medical students committed to including oral health in their prenatal appointments, and the number of dental students gaining experience treating pregnant women.

Now, Davis and Karan will expand the project to invite additional agencies, such as the Pitt County Health Department, to refer pregnant patients to the dental school. As part of the vision for sustaining the project, they will also work to increase the number of pregnant patients at the school’s eight community service learning centers across the state.

A key element of the pOHP is educating pregnant patients on the importance of oral health care. Davis and Karan will help dental students feel comfortable and well informed when presenting information to pregnant patients.

“We’re planning ‘lunch and learn’ presentations for dental and medical students, residents, and faculty that will include the data and significance and address unfounded myths,” said Karan, “and we’re making it easy for dental, OB/GYN, and health department providers to access pOHP visual aids for patients during appointments.”

Davis and Karan are drawn to public health, especially women’s health, because of their life experiences. Ljiljana Karan escaped war torn Bosnia and Herzegovina with her family as a child and moved to North Carolina. She studied at the UNC Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health as an undergraduate.

“As refugees to this country, my family and I had very little access to health care and were often on the receiving end of public health service. Thus, I have felt first hand the uplifting impact that service can have on an individual, inspiring in me a desire to instill in others the education and empowerment that my family and I had felt,” she says.

Alexandra Davis was inspired to pursue a career in health care by her mother, an ECU trained obstetrics nurse dedicated to improving the health of women in eastern North Carolina.

“My mother shared many of her nursing experiences with me, and so women’s health especially during pregnancy became an interest for me. I believe there are many gaps in the treatment of pregnant women in our larger community,” said Davis.

The Fellows are working with a team of mentors, including Dr. Kimberley Gise and Dr. Geralyn Crain from the School of Dental Medicine, Dr. Sarah Smith from the ECU Brody School of Medicine Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Dr. Renee Spain from the ECU College of Nursing and Pitt County Health Department.

“The strength of the Schweitzer Fellowship program is that it provides a framework of support for the Fellows to be successful,” said Dr. Geralyn Crain. “We could not do this without the close support and guidance of Ms. Barbara Heffner, Schweitzer program director, and without our faculty and site mentors. We’ve been able to enlist an enthusiastic team of dental medicine faculty and staff to establish the infrastructure to support an efficient workflow for the intake, treatment, and tracking of pregnant patients in our dental clinics. This is beneficial not only for this project but for sustainability practices for treating pregnant patients in the future.”

“The Schweitzer Fellows have been instrumental in providing access to the oral health care that many of our patients so desperately need and in educating our OB/GYN residents about the necessity of good oral health care during pregnancy,” said Dr. Sarah Smith, clinical associate professor, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, ECU Brody School of Medicine.

“The Fellows’ dedication to serving vulnerable populations echoes the way in which the ECU School of Dental Medicine fosters a love for community service work. ECU can be proud of their commitment to building healthy communities,” said Barbara Heffner, director, Albert Schweitzer Fellowship – North Carolina.

Davis and Karan will measure the program’s success in late spring 2017. Measurements will include the number of pregnant patients referred to the dental school; the results of pre- and post-training questionnaires completed by students, residents and faculty; and the number of appointments made by patients following their pregnancy and oral health education.

“The ultimate hope is that pregnant women will realize how their oral health impacts both their systemic health and the health of their newborns,” said Alexandra Davis.