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graphic of keiki with tooth and brush

When the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated in-person clinical experiences for health sciences students at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, faculty in the School of Nursing and Dental Hygiene got creative to fulfill the requirement for dental hygiene (DH) students. They developed an alternative clinical experience which allowed the students to provide virtual oral health education to UH‘s Head Start partners and nearly 800 keiki and families throughout the state. Head Start is a federally funded program that provides early childhood education and comprehensive services for low-income families with children ages three to five years old.

The innovative DH clinical experience was offered from August 2020 until April 2021. Twenty DH students conducted virtual sessions and provided health education to 53 Head Start classrooms reaching 775 children and their families using Zoom. With support from Gerraine Hignite, oral health manager for the Hawaiʻi Keiki Dental Sealant Program, and Lynn Fujimoto Ertel, dentist and dental hygiene associate professor, the students created presentations on various dental health topics, followed by a question and answer session. Each Head Start child was also sent a free dental kit to use at home.

In addition to the virtual sessions, Head Start staff were provided with voiced-over presentations of each session for future use in their classrooms to serve the needs of their families.

A valuable alternative

student hygenist with patient
The UH Mānoa Dental Hygiene Clinic closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, Head Start keiki traveled by bus to experience UH campus life first hand, while accessing free oral health services provided by DH students at the UH Mānoa Dental Hygiene Clinic. Students taught Head Start keiki about healthy habits such as exercise, good nutrition and oral health hygiene, including brushing and flossing. With the closure of the clinic in March 2020 due to COVID-19, the DH department, led by Program Administrator and Instructor Kristine Osada, needed to think creatively to continue students’ clinical experiences while providing important health education to the community.

“Creating and providing virtual oral health education was a valuable experience for DH students, while also meeting the needs of the Head Start community,” said Deborah Mattheus, nursing associate professor. “Students found this alternative clinical experience using a virtual educational platform, to be initially challenging, while also gratifying once they were able to complete each session successfully.” Mattheus and Osada are co-investigators of a five-year Health Resources and Services Administration training grant aimed to increase student’s knowledge and experiences in providing oral care to children ages 0—5 years.

“As dental clinics reopen, dental hygiene programs should continue to use this creative approach, which allows for the provision of education regardless of location in the state,” added Mattheus.

This program is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Enhancing Student Success (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

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