Institute for Diversity in Leadership project extends dental care to Navajo Nation patients

While working at Tséhootsooi Medical Center, a hospital operated by the Navajo Nation in Fort Defiance, Arizona, Dr. Felicia Frizzell noticed a need: Patients in the Adolescent Care Unit, a psychiatric in-patient area for children ages 13-17, were not receiving basic dental check-up.

“Patients in this unit are given a physical, their eyes and ears are checked, but there is no dental screening,” said Dr. Frizzell, adding that the dental clinic’s only interaction with these patients was in an emergency basis.

Dr. Frizzell

Dr. Frizzell

In addition, as a Mescalero Apache from Mescalero, New Mexico, Dr. Frizzell said she knows all too well that Native Americans often lack dental care.

“I know this population. They’re a very young, vulnerable and a high-risk population for dental problems,” she said.

For those reasons, she chose to work on getting patients from the Adolescent Care Unit access to dental care as her project for the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership. Dr. Frizzell was among 12 graduates this year.

The Institute provides a diverse group of dentists with education and experience to build a lifetime of relationships and set new leadership paths within the dental profession and their community. As a key part of the experience, each participant designs and completes a personal leadership project for his or her community or the profession.

“Before the Institute, I tended to be more of an observer,” she said. “I want to be a leader. The Institute helped me to step up, learn to negotiate and boost my confidence.”

To accomplish her project, Dr. Frizzell worked with the hospital’s dental director and colleagues to figure out the logistics and process needed in order to see these patients in the Adolescent Care Unit outside of an emergency setting.

The dental clinic began seeing patients in February, providing care ranging from a basic dental check-up and cleanings to extractions and root canals. For irreversible procedures, the clinic must arrange transportation services for the patient’s parents in order to gain parental consent.

Because each patient cycle in the Adolescent Care Unit is about eight weeks long, about 12-14 new patients receive dental screenings and needed treatment after each cycle. This poses a challenge because many of the patients don’t come to their appointments after they’ve long left the ACU.

“The most difficult part right now, which we’re all still trying to find a solution, is following up on these patients,” she said.

Nonetheless, said Dr. Frizzell, it has been a successful first step and has been good way to introduce the patients to the importance of dental care.

“The kids are great and ask a lot of questions,” she said. “Because some have substance abuse issues, we try to educate how these substances can affect their teeth.”

Dr. Frizzell said she has proposed a hospital policy that, if approved, would ensure her program continues even when she’s no longer at the facility.

“As a new dentist, I want to build up my leadership and team building skills in order to benefit my patients,” she said. “Because of the Institute, I know that if I have a good idea, I can get it done.”

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