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Q&A with Dr. Zindell Richardson, Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry

May 6, 2022

Dr. Zindell Richardson is the associate dean of clinical affairs at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry. Before joining the UK faculty, Richardson served as commander of the 59th Dental Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, the largest dental squadron in the Air Force Medical Service and home to its Post Graduate Dental School.

Interact for Health: Access to oral health care is affected by social, cultural, economic and geographic factors, but also by the separation of oral health from the health care system. How can community healthy partnerships help improve access to oral care?

Richardson: For many, oral health isn’t necessarily considered an essential part of overall health. There can be a lack of understanding around how preventative dental health measures can help avoid potential larger health concerns. Community partnerships focused on a general goal of improving the health of an area can help expand resources by underscoring the importance of oral health and helping to reduce or share potential costs involved with offering care.

Interact for Health: What are the greatest challenges community partnerships face in providing oral care?

Richardson: It’s important to understand what a community really needs, the demand in and around an area, key supporters who should be involved in discussions and planning, and what resources are already present to address needs. This all feeds into preparing clear, realistic goals, which are needed to launch new efforts as well as maintain them over time. 

Interact for Health: What are community partnerships in Kentucky doing to address these challenges?

Richardson: Launching a new partnership is not and shouldn’t be a quick process. It requires a lot of conversations to help ensure the right stakeholders make it to the table and have the information they need. Careful and thoughtful planning is one of the best ways to address challenges. Groups realize we can’t be all things to all people as no one has unlimited resources. By working together and listening to community stakeholders, we can craft plans to work toward meaningful efforts to address the health in communities.

Interact for Health: How are educational institutions such as UK working to address the oral health needs of rural communities?

Richardson: UK continues to work to build relationships both within the university, across colleges or disciplines, as well as with outside stakeholders. It’s through partnerships and working with others that we can increase, strengthen and sustain our efforts in rural communities. 

In the case of rural communities, we’re working to listen to a variety of stakeholders in local areas to gain their insight into particular challenges for areas. This insight is key as flexible approaches are needed to best support different areas. Additionally, we continue our commitment to offering and being involved in efforts to support oral health education and dental care services beyond our campus.

Interact for Health: How has COVID-19 impacted access to oral health care in rural areas?  

Richardson: COVID had a significant impact on oral health, from forcing many dental offices to limit services to emergency-only care early in the pandemic to patients deferring regular dental visits after dental offices reopened due to financial challenges or concerns about the virus. In short, fewer individuals were served. In the case of the college’s annual dental sealant outreach effort, our dental students were not able to enter elementary schools to provide screenings, sealants and important oral health education to students. Our participation in other efforts, such as remote area medical events, resulted in fewer patients treated due to additional COVID-related safety and cleaning measures required.

Interact for Health: Are there different considerations for providing oral care in rural settings?

Richardson: Challenges such as geographic isolation and lack of transportation for patients can hinder oral care services in rural settings. Historically, a higher rate of poverty found in rural areas when compared with metro areas and a shortage of oral health providers has also negatively impacted dental care in rural settings. Approaches to oral health in rural areas generally need to be tailored to a particular geographic area.

Interact for Health: What do you want funders to know about oral health?

Richardson: Oral health is an important part of overall health, not just an “optional” part of health care. Research demonstrates the potential connections between a person’s oral health and their overall wellness. Oral health issues can contribute to conditions such as cardiovascular disease, pneumonia, diabetes and other health challenges. These health concerns can even extend to newborns, as poor oral health in pregnant women has been associated with premature births and low birth weight.

Interact for Health: What do you find most fulfilling about your job?

Richardson: While playing a role in supporting the oral health services we provide to our patients is very fulfilling, the most motivating aspect of my job is working to support future dentists. Helping our dental students navigate the challenges along their dental education journey is the most rewarding aspect of my role, as I know we are working to prepare them to go out into Kentucky and beyond after graduation and support patient care.

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