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California dental students advocate for dentistry, patients during Grassroots Advocacy Days

April 07, 2022 3469
Screenshot of a virtual meeting via Zoom with small photos of 21 participants with names captioned below each photo.

Quick Summary:

The discussions this year centered on alleviating dental workforce shortages, expanding access to care for vulnerable populations and protecting patient choice when receiving telehealth services ― three of CDA’s major issues and advocacy priorities for 2022. The students highlighted immediate and long-term solutions to these issues through state budget funding and CDA-sponsored legislation. In this article, four student participants share their experiences.

Student representatives from six California dental schools met in February and March with state legislators and legislative staff to discuss critical issues affecting dentistry and oral health as part of Grassroots Advocacy Days. CDA coordinates the small-group discussions every year to allow dental societies and dental student representatives to have in-depth, interactive conversations with lawmakers and their staff.

The discussions this year centered on alleviating dental workforce shortages, expanding access to care for vulnerable populations and protecting patient choice when receiving telehealth services ― three of CDA’s major issues and advocacy priorities for 2022. The students highlighted immediate and long-term solutions to these issues through state budget funding and CDA-sponsored legislation.

Some students participated as first-year dental students, while others were veterans ― returning for a second time. Several students shared concerns about their own future in the profession, such as their ability to pay back student loans that can top $300,000 and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their clinical training.

Traditionally, Grassroots Advocacy Days are held in person at the state Capitol, but out of caution for participants’ safety during the ongoing pandemic, CDA opted again to organize virtual meetings.

Access to care for patients with special needs is ‘near and dear’ to student’s heart

Kenza Schreiber, a first-year student at the University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, spoke with Sen. Scott Weiner, Assemblymember Jim Wood, DDS, and a senior legislative aide for Assemblymember Phil Ting about why CDA is seeking a one-time investment of $50 million through the state budget to build and expand dental clinics that serve patients with special needs.

“This funding is considered a one-time investment because once the dental clinics open or expand and start treating the desired patient population, they will be self-sustaining,” Schreiber said.

The budget funds could be allocated to pay for the construction, expansion or adaptation of dental surgical clinics or specialty dental clinics in California to increase access to oral health care for specialty populations that are unable to undergo dental procedures in traditional dental offices due to special health care needs or the complexity of needed care.

“This budget ask is very near and dear to my heart because of my aunt who has special needs,” Schreiber said. When she was 6 years old, Schreiber watched her aunt receive treatment in a dental clinic for patients with special needs in Colorado. That experience encouraged her to become a dentist.

Currently, few sites can provide care for patients with special needs, and most are backlogged with long wait times exacerbated by the pandemic. Many patients and their families travel hours to clinics to receive routine dental care.

“Opening more clinics allows people in the area to go to those specific clinics and receive the best care for their situations,” Schreiber said.

As a first-time participant, Schreiber said she plans to participate in more events like Grassroots Advocacy Days.

“My experience was very positive. It was interesting to be able to apply things I’ve learned in the first three quarters of dental school as well as bring my own personal background stories about dentistry and speak up about them.”

Clinical education rotations for dental students would benefit local communities

Akshyeta Amatya, a first-year student in the UCLA School of Dentistry’s Professional Program for International Dentists, participated in Grassroots Advocacy Days for the first time. She spoke with legislative aides and staff of Assemblymember Isaac Bryan and Sen. Ben Allen about several issues, including the one-time budget funding CDA is seeking to support community-based clinical education rotations for dental students. 

The $10 million investment would be administered by a nonprofit foundation in collaboration with dental schools and would allow hundreds of dental students each year to serve in community settings in designated dental care health professional shortage areas.

“These rotations would enable dental students to provide oral health care under supervision in remote areas where there are shortages of dental providers and services,” Amatya said. “In fact, they could become the only source for dental treatment for some individuals due to various circumstances.”

Amatya said the clinic rotations would also provide an “excellent learning opportunity” for dental students.

“In my meeting with legislative staff, I emphasized that these rotations would allow us to serve our people and get familiar with dentistry practiced outside the four walls of dental school.”

Like Schreiber, Amatya also addressed the $50 million in budget funding sought for dental clinic expansion to serve patients with special needs. She used her own experience at the UCLA School of Dentistry’s Special Patient Care clinic to punctuate the need, telling the assemblymember’s and senator’s staff that the clinic has a wait time of nearly three years for procedures that require general anesthesia.

“We also see patients who travel for hours for these appointments,” she said.

As a foreign-trained dentist looking to practicing in the U.S., Amatya called her grassroots advocacy experience enriching. 

“I realized we can bring about changes through our unanimous voice to help uplift the oral health care of the communities we live in,” she said.

Student feels ‘heard’ and included in her discussions with legislators

Isabella Idea, a first-year student at the Loma Linda University School of Dentistry, said she “felt heard” during her discussions with Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, assemblymembers Eloise Gómez Reyes and Jim Wood, DDS, and the legislative director for Assemblymember James Ramos.

Idea spent considerable time discussing how specific trends and challenges in dentistry, such as the increasing costs of dental education and supplies and the impact of student loan debt on the ability to buy or own a dental practice, could be ameliorated through state budget funding.

“Seeing Dr. Jim Wood, a Loma Linda alum, show his support for our ‘asks’ and answer questions unique to his experience as both a clinician and policy advocate made me feel so included,” Idea said. “He candidly talked about his own student loans in comparison to my own and explained his unique venture into the world of policy ― putting the pieces together, being a problem solver and literally having a hand in the future of dentistry. In this way, he showed yet another example of the versatility of our career.”

Idea also spoke about CDA-sponsored Assembly Bill 1982, which would ensure dental patients are adequately informed about their benefit limitations and annual maximums during third-party telehealth services.

“Endorsing this bill is a step toward creating a culture that supports patient autonomy and bolsters clinician-patient communication. It also legitimizes the significance of teledentistry, especially since COVID-19 has made it all the more important for patient access.”

A much-needed expanded scope of practice for dental assistants

Ariana Faron, UCLA School of Dentistry Class of 2023, is also a two-time advocacy days participant. She spoke with legislative staff about a second CDA-sponsored bill that would help to alleviate the strain a reduced workforce puts on dental practices. In a November 2021 survey by the American Dental Association, 87% of dental offices reported they found recruiting and hiring dental assistants extremely challenging when compared to pre-pandemic.

“AB 2276 would provide a much-needed expansion of scope of practice for dental assistants, allowing them to perform simple procedures that would help alleviate staff pressures in dental offices,” Faron said. 

Currently, dental assistants can enroll in and complete certification courses through the Dental Board of California to perform coronal polishing and apply sealants, but they cannot actually perform these tasks until they receive registered dental assistant licensure.

Like Amatya, Faron also used her experience at her school’s Special Patient Care Clinic to highlight the need for additional clinics in California that can serve vulnerable patients and others with complex needs.

“It was an honor to share my experiences with my peers and with staff members from the offices of Sen. Ben Allen and Assemblymember Isaac Bryan,” Faron said. “I was able to give a brief overview of our patients with special health care needs and why they face such a significant barrier to care.”

‘Grassroots advocacy is an extension of what I grew up doing – helping people’

Whether new to Grassroots Advocacy Days or a returning participant, all four students suggested they are just getting started.

“I absolutely loved it,” Faron said. “I’m learning that with grassroots advocacy it takes patience and persistence, and yet it’s extremely gratifying. It’s one thing to do our service as citizens and vote, but it’s a completely different experience advocating for the issues ourselves.”

“Grassroots advocacy is an extension of what I grew up doing – helping people,” Idea said. “But advocating with CDA provides me and others the opportunity to treat our communities with the care they deserve, to set a precedent for the way our profession should be and to utilize our hand skills and abilities to take care of our communities.”

Schreiber shared a similar sentiment.

“Dentistry and oral health apply to every single person because everyone has a mouth,” she said. “We as professional oral health care providers need to advocate for people’s oral health and wellness because some may not be educated to do so for themselves.”

CDA’s Grassroots Advocacy Days for dental students have concluded for 2022, but advocacy days for local dental societies are now in progress and will continue through June. Learn more about or get involved in CDA grassroots advocacy.