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A recent Capitol Hill briefing showcased the leadership of School of Dental and Oral Surgery faculty and alumni in developing national policy, specifically in the area of racial and ethnic health disparities.

Drafters of separate Democratic and Republican bills did not address oral health until a June briefing was organized by Burton Edelstein, D.D.S., M.P.H., chairman and professor of clinical dentistry (social & behavioral sciences) at SDOS and the Children's Dental Health Project (CDHP), a Washington, D.C.-based research and policy organization that Dr. Edelstein helped found.

Dr. Edelstein, who is also professor of clinical health policy and management at the Mailman School, decided to coordinate the briefing because although Congress showed interest in addressing health disparities, it was not including oral health as it created new legislation.

SDOS was well represented at the meeting as Dr. Edelstein, Lawrence A. Taback, D.D.S., SDOS '77, director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), and Marcia Irving-Ray, D.D.S., assistant clinical professor at SDOS and dental director at Harlem United, an SDOS community partner organization, delivered presentations. Denise How, D.D.S., associate professor of clinical dentistry, also attended the meeting.

The briefing was hosted by six members of Congress, three of whom are minority health activists, and included participation by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), the Academy of General Dentistry, the American Dental Hygienist's Association, Friends of the NIDCR, the Hispanic Dental Association, and the National Dental Association.

Congressional staff attendance, interest and engagement was high, with more than 50 relevant offices represented throughout the entire session, Dr. Edelstein says. Many Congressional offices have contacted dental experts for more information since the briefing.

"We had a very attentive audience because they knew they needed to know more about the problem," he says. "We offered specific policy recommendations to address the components of the problem."

Besides Drs. Edelstein, Irving-Ray, and Taback, Richard Haught, D.D.S., president-elect of the ADA, Raul Garcia, D.D.S., former president of the Hispanic Dental Association and director of an NIDCR disparities research center, and Frank Catalanotto, D.D.S., ADEA president, also spoke at the session. The speakers discussed six topics for delivering better oral health care:

reduce disparities in dental insurance coverage;
ensure the availability of dental care to users of safety-net sites such as clinics and community health centers;
reduce the disease burden through proven public health interventions;
improve the diversity and competency of the dental workforce to better reflect and treat the U.S. population;
educate at the personal, professional and community levels to inform behaviors that reduce disease burden and improve use of dental services; and
support research to better understand racial and ethnic disparities so policies and programs can be developed to eradicate them.

Providing information to educate Congress about health care problems is a challenging but rewarding effort, Dr. Edelstein says. The work he and his colleagues do at SDOS and the Mailman School in the CUMC policy centers supports the work of Children's Dental Health Project in its goal to use research findings to inform policy. "The research done at Columbia becomes an issue of activism in Washington, D.C., through the CDHP," he says. "It's a continuum."

—Matthew Dougherty


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