Improving Oral Health of Families

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) will develop and test an outreach program to reduce cavities in Chicago’s low-income and minority infants and toddlers under a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Community health workers will reach out to educate families about oral hygiene at health clinics and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) centers and in their homes.

“We want to improve the oral health of the child by improving the oral health of the whole family,” said Dr. Molly Martin, Associate Professor of Pediatrics in the UIC College of Medicine. “If the parents or caregivers aren’t practicing good oral hygiene themselves, the chance that the children will take good care of their own teeth is much lower.”

Dr. Martin said the success of educational interventions can depend on the environment in which they are delivered.

“Are families more likely to take action if they are reached at home, in the clinic, or at a WIC center?” asked Dr. Martin, who is a fellow of the UIC Institute for Health Research and Policy and principal investigator on the NIH grant.

Her team also wants to look at whether a combination of settings has a greater effect.

“We might find that families are more likely to take action if they are reached in the clinic and at home,” she said, “than they are if they are just reached at a clinic.”

The study, called Coordinated Oral Health Promotion Chicago, or CO-OP Chicago, includes UIC researchers in clinical pediatrics, dentistry, and health policy. They will recruit and train six community health workers to talk with 1,500 families in Chicago who have children between the ages of six months and three years. Families will be followed for two years to evaluate their overall oral health and the incidence of cavities in the children.

Almost half of children 11 years and under have cavities, one of the most common chronic health conditions of childhood, particularly among low-income and minority children. In Chicago, 63 percent of third graders have cavities, and more than half of the cavities go untreated.

Pediatric dentists at the College of Dentistry will develop the training curriculum for the community health workers.

“Improving oral health and access to care for families and children is something we are very excited to be a part of through this grant,” said Dr. Marcio da Fonseca, Head, Pediatric Dentistry, at the UIC College of Dentistry.

The grant to UIC is one of ten announced by the NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) as part of the new national Multidisciplinary and Collaborative Research Consortium to Reduce Oral Health Disparities in Children.

“Research has shown that individual-level approaches alone are not sufficient to reduce rates of tooth decay and other oral diseases,” said NIDCR Program Director Ruth Nowjack-Raymer. The consortium’s research projects, she said, “will involve holistic,
population-health, and other approaches to take decisive action against oral health disparities at multiple levels of influence, such as families, neighborhoods, and healthcare systems.”

The CO-OP Chicago grant is administered by the UIC Institute for Health Research and Policy, an all-campus home and incubator for multidisciplinary health research.

Co-investigators on the grant are Drs. William Frese, Usha Raj, and Benjamin Van Voorhees of the UIC College of Medicine; Drs. Marcio da Fonseca, David Avenetti, and Sheela Raja of the UIC College of Dentistry; Michael Berbaum and Oksana Pugach of the UIC Institute for Health Research and Policy; and Jennie Pinkwater of the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
–Sharon Parmet