Initiative ‘Borrowing’ Libraries Will Expand Access to Dental Care

The 2007 death of a 12-year-old Prince George’s County boy due to complications from a tooth infection shed light on how race and class factor into accessing basic—and sometimes life-saving—dental treatment. Like many across the country, Deamonte Driver’s family did not have dental insurance.

Now, a new multi-institution project based at the University of Maryland is focused on understanding and responding to inequities in dental care by reaching patients at one of the few remaining places in the United States that are free and open to all: public libraries. 

The Narratives and Medical Education (NAME) project will place predoctoral dental students and dental hygiene students at six libraries in California, Indiana, Iowa and Maryland—including the Hyattsville Public Library in Prince George’s County—to provide screenings and education along with students in English and professional writing who will use their skills to highlight the experiences of marginalized communities and seek to inform the public around issues of health access and disparities.  

“Instead of underserved populations trying to find a clinic to go to where they may not feel welcome or may not have access, the idea is to bring clinicians into the local community,” said Principal Investigator and Director Michelle V. Moncrieffe, a lecturer in the English department. “No child should die of a toothache.” 

A wide body of research links poor oral health to a range of negative physical, mental and economic impacts. Yet, an estimated 76.5 million adults—equal to nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population, plus an unknown number of children—do not have dental coverage, according to research from CareQuest Institute for Oral Health. While older Americans are most at risk of developing oral health problems, they’re also the most likely to lack dental insurance. Communities of color are also disproportionately impacted, research shows.

The NAME project was recently awarded a grant of $481,232 from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. It’s in collaboration with researchers from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; San Francisco State University; Indiana University and the University of Iowa. 

Moncrieffe, who teaches “Writing for the Health Professions” in the Professional Writing Program and serves as the adviser for the Humanities, Health and Medicine minor, said the project perfectly blends public humanities with health and medicine to highlight the experiences of marginalized communities. Ultimately, this can help change the way dentistry is taught and practiced, she said. 

“As a team, we all believe in narrative power and understand the transformative nature of bringing together health, dentistry, medicine and the humanities,” Moncrieffe said. “Everyone has a story.” 

The NAME Project launched earlier this month and will run for two years. The project’s first “health fairs” will be held across the country over the next six months.    


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