10 Under 10: Dr. Antonina Capurro, expanding access to care in Nevada

By | September 16, 2019

Dr. Capurro poses for a photo with two young patients.

As student focusing on pediatric emergency medicine, Dr. Antonina Capurro volunteered to work on a mobile clinic as a way of broadening her pre-med experience.

Dr. Capurro, second from right, attends the 2019 Governor’s Ball in Nevada. Dr. Capurro serves as the state’s Dental Health Officer.

She was tasked to oral hygiene instruction on a bus that served elementary school children in rural Nevada.

What she found was disturbing: children who never had a toothbrush or had never brushed their teeth, children sharing a toothbrush with siblings, and children only brushing once a week because they were sharing.

“The kids would come in with pain,” Dr. Capurro said. “For them to receive services and immediately get out of pain, or to get their first toothbrush … it changed my life and it changed theirs. I fell in love with public health, and that idealism, that I might not be able to save the world but I can save the people in my community.”

Dr. Capurro with University of Nevada Las Vegas students during a trip in Panama City, Panama.

Dr. Capurro went into dental school on a dual-track program that would allow her to earn a master’s in business administration. The administrative experience would help in a public health setting, she reasoned. And after that, she sought her master’s in public health.

And – because there was no dual-track DMD and MPH program – she designed one as her capstone MPH program and it’s now offered at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“I have mentored students who’ve come after me at dental school through that program. For students who have completed it, they’re having really interesting careers,” she said. “I think it helps them look at patients and think of prevention first instead of drilling and filling.”

As the state’s Dental Health Officer, she focuses on access to oral healthcare in rural populations, where she sees the most need. The job is part-time administrator, part-time clinician, part-time booster. She also developed Medical Miles for Rural Smiles to help meet the growing dental needs of a rural population, which offered care in a mobile-clinic setting.

“We worked on the bus, wrote the policies, got the funding, marketed it, and also provided services,” Dr. Capurro said. “We’re a small, lean program. From the beginning to the end, we do it all. So when there’s a need, whether it’s an outreach event, volunteering or collaborating with another organization, we jump in.”

But the experience with school children as a pre-med student helped shape her view toward public health and advocacy. From that moment, public health became Dr. Capurro’s guiding principle.

“These poor kids had never had anyone talk to them about oral health and they had pain in their mouth and no one was helping them. They come in with a problem and you can treat them. You have some kind of solution,” she said. “There’s just not enough voices that are standing up to include dentistry and oral health in local conversations.”

Dr. Capurro is a recipient of the 2018 10 Under 10 award. Read more about the award at ADA.org/10under10.

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