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"Primary care settings can provide an excellent opportunity to increase oral health knowledge in order to increase prevention of dental decay," says McClory (pictured with patients in the CHPCC waiting room).

Having grown up in rural Alaska—where the rate of dental decay among children is as much as 4 1/2 times greater than the national average—Patricia McClory has long been passionate about addressing oral health disparities.

As a Schweitzer Fellow and a student at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, McClory—whom you may recognize from The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship’s new video, Creating Change, Improving Health—is taking a hands-on approach to preventing oral disease in children. Over the past year, McClory set up shop in Children’s Hospital Boston’s Primary Care Clinic (CHPCC) waiting room—delivering interactive oral health education for children and their parents as they wait to be seen by their pediatrician.

Why did you decide to develop your particular Schweitzer project?

Because of the overwhelming influence of pediatricians in young children’s healthcare when compared to their dental counterparts, primary care settings can provide an excellent opportunity to increase oral health knowledge in order to increase prevention of dental decay.

During my first year as a dental student at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, I had the great opportunity to partner with Children’s Hospital Boston and perform research in my hometown in Alaska. After spending a summer collecting data from parents in the waiting rooms of Alaskan pediatric offices, I was struck by the overall interest in dental health. The physician’s waiting room proved to be fertile ground to reach a large number of parents and children to discuss basic oral hygiene, nutritive, and fluoride practices. The preventive oral health information was well received, and parents were grateful that I could make good use of their long waits so as to educate them and their children.

This experience inspired a Schweitzer project in which dental students could provide oral health education sessions for children and parents in Children’s Hospital Boston’s Primary Care Clinic (CHPCC) waiting room. Here, children could practice brushing and flossing, learn about all of the mysteries of the dentist and cavity formation, and return home with a brand new toothbrush and toothpaste to try their new brushing techniques in the privacy of their own homes.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your Schweitzer project on the community it serves?

I hope my project raises awareness about oral health and nutrition in the primary care setting. My goal is to remind pediatricians that oral health is an important component of the child’s overall health, while exciting children about taking good care of their teeth.  Similarly, I hope parents leave their appointments thinking that oral hygiene and good nutrition are important and should be incorporated into the child’s everyday life. These small steps are important to the overall effort to prevent oral disease in children.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

Access to care is such an important issue in all aspects of healthcare, but we see the issue arise so often in dentistry that it has had a significant impact on my career goals. Living in rural Alaska, I have seen the devastating effects when  access to care is limited for vulnerable populations. It has prompted me to work to find solutions.

Prevention should be a major focus in addressing this challenge. Efforts to move research forward will help us identify important issues in these populations that can then be improved with educational efforts. Health promotion and education are such important tools to empower patients to make healthy lifestyle choices. Ultimately, the resulting disease prevention may help to ease the burden that currently faces the healthcare system.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?

It has been so inspiring to meet the other Fellows and learn about their backgrounds and projects. Everyone is so unique, yet we all have this burning passion to make changes and improvements in our communities and those of others with similar needs. It’s refreshing to interact with these people on such a frequent basis—it reminds me of why I originally decided to enter the healthcare profession.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and, ultimately, Fellow for Life) mean to you?

Through The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, I have developed skills in project planning—and, more importantly, had the opportunity to serve my local Boston community directly. It has been such a great honor to work with students from around Boston to share their experiences and passion for community health.

I look forward to alumni events, since these lasting relationships through the Fellows for Life network will allow me to learn and grow as a leader during future years of service. I believe the support of the Schweitzer Fellowship this year has and will continue to be an integral part of my personal and professional mission to impact overlooked populations in need of increased healthcare involvement.

Patricia McClory is a Schweitzer Fellow in Boston, MA. Click here to read more about The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (ASF)’s Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like McClory it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that improve the health and well-being of vulnerable people and communities. To make a gift to the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program—which is supported entirely by charitable grants and contributions— click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.