Public-private partnership to improve dental health, save lives

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It’s a bold undertaking. The University of Kentucky’s College of Dentistry is launching a project to eradicate oral cancer in Eastern Kentucky. It’s an initiative that will address, head-on, barriers impacting oral health in the region — namely, a lack of awareness regarding oral health risks, and lack of access to opportunities for early diagnosis, dental care and treatment.

The three-year program will include creating a better understanding among Eastern Kentucky residents of the symptoms of oral cancer, as well as raising awareness of the links between heavy alcohol and tobacco use and oral cancer. It also will implement about 1,000 oral cancer screenings at local health departments, help connect patients who need additional care to cancer specialists in Lexington, and aid in their travel to Lexington.

To support this project, the United Health Foundation has awarded the UK College of Dentistry a grant of $1 million. The grant, provided to address the high prevalence of oral cancer in Harlan, Letcher and Pike counties, will be a tremendous boost to the program — and will help improve the oral health of eastern Kentuckians.

In fact, through the collaboration of the college and the foundation, lives can be saved. According to the National Institutes of Health, Kentucky has one of the nation’s highest incidences of oral cancer. And oral cancer has a high mortality rate — with only about 57 percent of those diagnosed surviving five years beyond the diagnosis, due in large part to late discovery. And consider that the prevalence of oral cancer in the counties targeted by the United Health Foundation grant is as much as 54 percent higher than the state average.

In a comparative study of oral health among all 50 states, the United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings noted Kentucky has a growing problem with access to dental care and oral-health services. The number of dentists per capita has declined for three straight years. This issue is exacerbated in rural areas — particularly in the Eastern Kentucky region — where residents may be an hour or more away from the nearest dentist. The status quo is not acceptable.

The barriers and solutions to improved oral health in the region are complex. However, with the expertise and integrated approach set forth by the College of Dentistry, along with the commitment and support provided by the United Health Foundation, the ambitious goals of this project are achievable. They have to be achievable. They must be achievable.

The college’s efforts to eradicate oral cancer in Eastern Kentucky is a reflection of its overall mission — advancing oral and general health in Kentucky and beyond. The college hopes this project will become a model for other organizations, and plans to share project findings and results with state and national organizations for the purpose of providing guidance on how the program might be replicated or adapted in other communities.

For the United Health Foundation, this partnership also lands squarely on its goal of supporting initiatives to improve our health system and enhance the well-being of local communities.

Dr. Stephanos Kyrkanides is dean of the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry.