Small steps can have a big impact

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In September 2013, we featured a story about the innovative educational opportunities found at the Vancouver Community College (VCC) Dental Hygiene Program. This program features an integrated, guided, independent study of self-directed projects that focus on ensuring that dental hygiene students develop their skills in the following areas: political action, oral health policy development, grant writing, professional advocacy and entrepreneurship.  We are delighted to have had the opportunity to speak with three students involved in an advocacy and research project as part of this program on the health promotion and oral health needs of women on the Downtown Eastside.

Bhumika Panchawala, Katerina Dombrovska, and Jennifer Conolly all studied at the VCC Dental Hygiene Program and recently graduated in June of 2013. Starting in September 2012, they embarked on a class project that opened their eyes to the ways in which dental hygienists can advocate for the profession while making a real difference in their community.

Through the guided, independent self- study program, the group was put in touch with the founder of Beauty Night.  Their idea was to work with the Beauty Night founder to create a framework for how to introduce oral care interventions into the program.

Downtown Eastside women face a host of health challenges. They are often marginalized, may be homeless, some are drug addicted, and others suffer abuse.  They feel the bias and the stigma as a result of their circumstances. For these women their health is often secondary because many find it difficult to access health care.  When they do, they can face discrimination, prejudice, and, in some cases, a lack of cultural sensitivity.

The challenge for the student team was to figure out how best to approach these women, who ranged in age from 19- 60, not only from their dental hygiene perspective, but with an awareness of their personal challenges and circumstances. As Bhumika notes, “We found that when we started the project we began to understand that the initial focus should be on making the women comfortable by building trust, confidence and self-esteem.  The introduction of dental hygiene care should come after a rapport was built and should be done so often in combination with beauty products.”  Katerina added to this by noting, “We also really wanted our framework to bring awareness to the way in which these women do not have access to health care for the most part. We knew that it was important to offer a perspective that included a more sensitive, caring and respectful experience with health care providers.”

The team learned through their research that the best way to interact with the women was to do so in a fun way.  Engaging in games that focus on confidence building and concentrating on the beauty and self-care aspect is an excellent way to help them get away from the many negatives in their lives while slowly but surely introduced elements of oral care. They also learned how important it was to be aware of the different cultures found on the Downtown Eastside, and to approach health and wellness with these cultural distinctions in mind.

Through this work, and the development of their framework (which other students will build on in future projects on the Downtown Eastside), Bhumika, Katerina and Jennifer are helping to put a kind and approachable face on the work that dental hygienists do as members of the health care team.  By virtue of their good work, and because of their desire to learn how to better connect with these women, this team served as excellent champions and ambassadors of the profession.

In recollecting on their experiences and what it means for them as dental hygienists, each shared her thoughts. “We learned so much by understanding that our scope of practice is very broad and that we can help communities through the work we do.  My eyes were truly opened to what’s available to me as a dental hygienist.” (Bhumika) “I also really had my eyes opened to what was out there for me and I would encourage dental hygienists to look at volunteer opportunities in their communities.  I think it’s important to be part of the landscape of professional volunteers and to give back to your community.” (Katerina) “Advocating for and working to enhance the health of disadvantaged groups is an important core responsibility of a dental hygienist. Beauty Night Society is a perfect example of the opportunities available for dental hygienists’ to enhance the relationships, and ultimately the oral health and overall health with those community members in need.  I am encouraged to get out there and make a difference!” (Jennifer)

The team also has high praise for the Dental Hygiene Program at VCC as well as its instructors. VCC’s reputation and the way in which students are prepared for practice drew each of them to the program. “We have learned to lobby for the profession, and we have learned that as dental hygienists we need to connect with our colleagues to keep advancing the profession”, notes Katerina. “I really feel that VCC’s program has taught us that small steps forward can add up to big impact and that with the guidance of instructors we were given freedom to approach topics with creativity.  I also really felt that our instructors were as open to learning from us as we were to learning from them”, says Bhumika.

Bhumika, Katerina and Jennifer will take these experiences with them as they enter their practice careers.  No doubt they will make VCC’s Dental Hygiene Program Instructors as well as their profession proud.