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Two UTSD Students Awarded Schweitzer Fellowship to Promote Oral Health in Elderly

Thursday, April 4, 2013 - 1:06pm

Francisco Nieves

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Two first-year dental students from The University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston – Francisco Nieves and Mary Hesse – have been awarded an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship and will complete a year-long community service project to promote oral health among low-income seniors.

Each year, the Schweitzer program selects about 250 graduate students nationwide across various disciplines to work with local community organizations to design and implement projects to improve the health of underprivileged populations.

Nieves and Hesse are the first dental students chosen in the Houston-Galveston branch of the program. During the coming year, they will work together on a 200-hour service project while still fulfilling all of their regular academic duties.

The students were inspired to apply for the fellowship and focus on geriatric dental care after a community health course they took last fall required them to visit a southeast Houston public housing project for low-income seniors. There, the students met with the residents to assess their dental health. Just a few weeks later, the students heard a presentation about the Schweitzer Fellowship from former participants.

“The fellowship came at a perfect time. During the public health course, it was heartbreaking to have so much need thrown in our faces and there wasn’t much we could do to help,” Hesse said. “And then we heard about the program. I don’t believe in coincidences; I felt called to pursue the fellowship.”

Project details still need to be fleshed out, but Nieves and Hesse plan to work with about 50 residents of the same public housing tenement they visited last year. They will meet with each one at least twice to educate and motivate them about good oral health practices.

This will include following up with the residents and providing them with oral hygiene products, including those particularly needed by the elderly, such as dry mouth rinse and toothpaste for sensitive teeth.

Correcting poor oral health habits among the elderly could be especially difficult and requires individual attention, Nieves said. One man he met at the apartment building hadn’t brushed his teeth in seven years and only rinsed with an antiseptic mouthwash and liquor.

“You can’t just storm in and tell them what to do, you have to get to know them on a personal level,” Nieves said.

The students’ faculty sponsor is June Sadowsky, DDS, MPH, associate professor in the Department of General Practice and Dental Public Health. Ana Neumann, DDS, MPH, PhD, assistant professor in general practice, also advised the pair on their application.

In addition to the service project, the Schweitzer program is also intended to cultivate a lifelong commitment to service among the fellows who will work to address health care disparities throughout their careers. 

Also, Nieves added, with geriatric patients a growing part of the population, it’s important for dentists to become familiar with the special oral health needs of the elderly.

The fellowship is named for Albert Schweitzer, a medical humanitarian who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.