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Bridging the dental health gap

Mouths

Dental health inequality is a major issue in the UK, with a third of five-year-olds in the north-west suffering from tooth decay. Undergraduate students at Manchester are helping to tackle this problem by teaching the region’s children to take care of their teeth.

Every ten minutes, a child in England has a tooth removed in hospital due to preventable decay, according to data published by Public Health England. This startling figure was released on the same day the government’s Soft Drinks Industry Levy (the so-called sugar tax) came into effect – the timing perhaps no coincidence, with experts confirming that sugar consumption is the leading cause of tooth decay in children.

Preventing this and its root causes is of paramount importance. That’s where Dental Playbox, a project run by the charity Action for Sick Children, is helping. The scheme has taken dental students to schools in areas of low socioeconomic status in Greater Manchester, encouraging children to learn about oral health. Students dress up as a giant tooth and encourage the children to brush them, teaching them about good oral hygiene.

The children have the opportunity to learn and to express any fears they may have about visiting the dentist. Funding from a major health-care company allowed every child attending a session to be given a free toothbrush, toothpaste and stickers to encourage a routine of dental care.

Students are learning in the classroom, and taking their skills and practising in local and global communities – helping those most at need.

Students are learning in the classroom, and taking their skills and practising in local and global communities – helping those most at need.

Understanding health inequalities

Senior Clinical Lecturer Dr Senathirajah Ariyaratnam, based in the University’s Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, believes experiencing and understanding health inequalities globally and locally is integral to a medical student’s education. Global dental-health volunteering has been established for some years, but Dr Ariyaratnam realised there are communities local to the University that could also benefit.

“Students are learning in the classroom, and taking their skills and practising in local and global communities – helping those most at need. It’s hugely beneficial at the University as our work has a tangible impact, which in turn benefits our reputation,” he says.

Senior Lecturer in Paediatric Dentistry and project lead Dr Siobhan Barry agrees. “Dental Playbox has benefited greatly from collaboration with our dental undergraduate students to utilise their expertise to deliver the appropriate advice,” she explains. “The students have also gained from this contact with children and their parents.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by undergraduate student Anastasia Szalk. “I was able to gain a great insight into how we can impact people’s lives that would otherwise not be reached,” she says. “It’s allowed me the opportunity to explore future possibilities for engaging the community beyond my time at university.”

It’s our civic responsibility to strengthen our communities. It’s not about what we are good at, but what are we good for.

Educating communities

Feedback from teachers and parents has also been positive. “Many children and their families struggle with their oral health while they are at primary school. They have difficulties in getting registered at an NHS dentist and, when they are, fail to attend regularly,” remarked one headteacher.

It’s our civic responsibility to strengthen our communities. It’s not about what we are good at, but what are we good for.

 “During these sessions, parents and carers were able to ask qualified dentists about tooth care. It’s hoped that, armed with this new knowledge, parents and carers will be able to support their children towards better oral health.”

“We’re empowering children with the knowledge they need to tackle good dental health,” adds Dr Ariyaratnam. “It’s our civic responsibility to strengthen our communities. It’s not about what we are good at, but what are we good for.”

Dr Ariyaratnam is working on an initiative that will see students whose first language isn’t English connecting with multi-ethnic communities that often have difficulties communicating health problems.

“Manchester is an international city, but these populations can often feel isolated from health education,” he explains. “This programme will, for example, involve students teaching children about oral health at a Sunday school for children from the Tamil community – but there’s also the opportunity to reach the children’s parents.

“By talking to them in a language that’s more familiar, our students can help them access the health services they need. It’s a pilot study and we expect it to cover a broad spectrum of health issues, which is why we’re connecting with medical colleagues at the University to work as an interdisciplinary team. It’s creating an environment for our students to explore different skills.

“A growing number of our students are volunteering locally and abroad. It helps their confidence and enables them to take their experiences into their careers. We want to cultivate a philosophy that encourages a humanistic approach to a clinically technical profession.”

Find out more about our research into global inequalities

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