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Dental school dean Patrick J. Ferillo visits with the Faculty of Dentistry at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Dental school dean Patrick J. Ferillo visits with the Faculty of Dentistry at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

I recently had the opportunity to represent our school during a fascinating trip to Thailand. The trip gave me several chances to meet with representatives of the dental community from around the world.

At the 9th World Congress on Preventive Dentistry, held in Phuket, Thailand, I gave a presentation on “Global Actions to Improve Oral Health from the Dental Education Perspective.” The International Association for Dental Research, the main host, organized the event with the World Health Organization, FDI World Dental federation and the International Federation for Dental Educators and Associations. (Read an overview of the event, which happens every four years)

While I was in the country, I had the pleasure to meet with the Faculty of Dentistry at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok (whom you can see in the photo). Following a presentation I gave, we had a fruitful discussion about current issues and challenges in dental education.

All of us who are in education have some similar issues. The dental curriculum constantly needs to be refined. We need to create effective learning environments that are different from years past, based on the unique ways in which students learn today. There is a strong need to develop faculty and commit resources to faculty training. All dental schools face these challenges, and by exchanging information with our colleagues around the world, we can learn from each other and move our schools ahead.

Our school is fortunate to have a long history of leadership within the field of dental education. I always enjoy sharing some of the secrets of our success, and also learning what is working at schools in other countries. Despite all of the digital communication technology at our fingertips, nothing ever takes the place of seeing another colleague, school or country up close and in person.

I left Thailand with two extraordinary impressions. The first was the Chulalongkorn University faculty’s dedication for excellence and the desire to be on the cutting edge of dentistry within Thailand. My second impression is of the warmth and friendliness of not only the people at the dental school, but all the people of Thailand. Their openness and willingness to help, always with a smile, is a model that we should all live by. I hope in the future I will have the opportunity to once again visit the people of Thailand — or that my hosts will visit us so that we can extend the same sort of hospitality that they extended to me.

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I recently had the privilege of facilitating and coordinating a meeting in Mexico City called the Oral Health Workshop for the Region of the Americas.

The sponsors of the meeting were the Pan American Health Organization, known as PAHO, and the government of Mexico. Our purpose in organizing the meeting was to discuss ways to create caries-free communities.

We had a great turnout, with 38 countries of the Americas sending representation. Each country was asked to present what is being done in their country to create caries-free communities, especially for the most vulnerable populations. All the presentations were interesting, but there were a few highlights that really stood out for me.

In Uruguay, for example, I found it fascinating that the president’s wife, the first lady, has adopted oral healthcare as her number-one initiative. Children in all schools receive a toothbrush, toothpaste and glass in which they are required to brush their teeth twice a day. They felt this was most effective way to ensure that kids were brushing their teeth given the fact that when children got home, good oral healthcare was not strictly enforced. This demonstrates that when policy makers become committed to oral healthcare, things get done.

The second thing that caught my attention was that fluoride as a means for preventing tooth decay, whether in the water or salt fluoridation, seemed to be widely accepted. It didn’t seem that there was any protest about the use of fluoride as an additive in either the salt or water.

Finally, many of the countries made strong cases about the linkage between oral healthcare and general health. During the last part of the meeting, small groups came together to try to design the ideal model to ensure that caries-free communities were effectively created.

Unfortunately, I did not participate in that portion of the meeting. The swine flu outbreak began to shut down Mexico City and I felt it was necessary for me to leave the country and return home to San Francisco. I am pleased to note that I have had no signs or symptoms of flu. I look forward to reading the final reports from the conference.

Locally, we recently began some discussions at the School of Dentistry to look at the possibility of identifying a community within San Francisco (and perhaps Central Valley) where we can develop a caries-free community. We’ll be having further discussions regarding this effort and I will keep the dental community informed about this exciting initiative.

I was fortunate to listen to a presentation made by Dr. Ling Jun-qi, professor and dean from the Guanghua School of Stomatology in Guangzhou, China. As part of a recent visit to our school, Dr. Ling Jun-qi gave an informative update on the state of dental education and dentistry in her country.

Dental educators from China recently visited our school.
Dental educators from China during a recent meeting and tour of our school.

In the United States, roughly 20 percent of our population has no access to oral healthcare. That equates to around 60 million people.

It is extraordinary when you think of the issue in China where they are dealing with a patient population of 1.5 billion. They have roughly the same number of dentists in China as we have in the U.S. The issues of access to care have to be extremely overwhelming for the country.

As we all know, oral health and overall health go hand in hand. It gives you some sense of the magnitude of the status of health in an incredibly fast-emerging country. When you read about China, it does not give you an excuse to say we are better off. We have significant problems here that need to be solved.

The U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world. At one time, before the economic downturn, California was estimated to have the seventh-largest economy in the world. Yet our state has some of the highest rates of tooth decay among children in the U.S. My perspective is that we have a significant problem for a country of our size and wealth.

Perhaps we have something to learn as other countries struggle with the problem of access to care. How they solve these issues may give us some insight into solving our problems as well. The bottom line is we have a lot to learn from each other. That is the importance of being involved globally. While problems may be of a different magnitude, they are the same in many ways. Access to care for the population is a worldwide problem. It’s a greater problem in many other countries, but we still all should work to develop strategies to address it.

I enjoyed discussing some of these shared issues with the leaders from the Guanghua School of Stomatology. You can read more about their visit and see a photo of the group with our Dean’s Cabinet on our Web site.

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As the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry moves from strength to strength, how is our progress reflected in the oral health of the country at large? And how do our goals, successes, and initiatives here in San Francisco affect other countries — especially emerging nations?

As you know, my mandate includes a substantial amount of contact with our international colleagues. We continue to forge bonds that, one by one, bring the worldwide dental community closer together and play a part in influencing the way that our profession affects global healthcare issues. But there are problems closer to home.

Nationally, we are seeing a decline in overall dental health. Part of this is due to a surge in immigration by individuals who — for reasons of income or culture or habit — cannot afford to or do not budget to put dental care into their lives. The trouble is, this has created a downward slide in the overall health of these individuals, with a follow-on impact on national healthcare allocation and budgeting. All of us, from the newest student to the most senior member of the faculty, need to keep this issue front and center in every aspect of our professional lives.

Many of the more established members of our community are working to influence legislation, raise funds and create a consciousness about this problem. Our Kids in the Klinic program involves just about everyone who attends, or used to, or even been into contact with the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry. It is a wonderful program. Please, do not let it slide when you graduate! Build into your career goals a plan to take part in a golf tournament, buy a raffle ticket or waive the fees for one disadvantaged patient every now and then. Dr. Renee DellAcqua, at her Palm Desert practice, regularly holds free Tooth Fairy clinics for the children of low-income families. She and her staff go the extra mile by dressing up in full fairy outfits, wings, and all. If you do not want to wear a fairy outfit — just plan to do as she does and, when you graduate, help make a difference, one child at a time.