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Behind the Scenes with DentaQuest’s Louisiana Dental Director

As part of Children’s Dental Health Month in February, DentaQuest partnered with educators from EatMoveGrow, a Louisiana health program, to share oral health lessons with 15,000 children in 40 parishes in the state. (DentaQuest sponsored the outreach with the other dental administrator in the state, MCNA.) The lessons came with some DentaQuest goodies, including a toothbrush, toothpaste and a water bottle. The kids and their families also enjoyed a short Zoom interview with DentaQuest’s Louisiana Dental Director, Dr. Damien Cuffie.

Fresh off his interview in Louisiana, we took the opportunity to learn a bit more about Dr. Cuffie, including how he got his start in dentistry, the benefits of drinking water and the challenges rural communities face when it comes to oral health.Dr. Damien Cuffie

Could you say a bit about your background? How did you get interested in dentistry?

I’m a military kid born in California and raised around the world. Thanks to my parents, I have been exposed to so much of the world and it was the catalyst for my desire to go into health care. I attended Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans for undergrad and I attended Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN, for dental school. I owe both prestigious institutions my gratitude for the love, direction, and education they provided for me. The interest in dentistry came while working on my master’s in public health in policy and management with Louisiana State University School of Public Health. I was able to see the disparity many groups of people face in oral health. I was also able to see the deficit of male dentists and, specifically, African American male dentists in a city with a large African American population. I believe representation matters. I also feel cultural competency and similarity play a large role in the health outcomes of patients.

How did you get involved at DentaQuest as a Dental Director?

My background in healthy policy and management and working with a specific population that is mostly Medicaid recipients pushed me to look more into the dental administration of health care. DentaQuest actually reached out to me because of my interest and my work in the community here in New Orleans and in Nashville where I attended dental school.

What role does the Dental Director play in the state?

The dental director is an active member of the dental community and still practices within the population we provide service for. We’re here to help mitigate any issues practitioners may be facing and to help resolve clinical questions that may arise between DentaQuest, the department of health and the dental community.

In your video, you talked to kids about the importance of caring for their teeth. Why is it so important for kids to get this knowledge early in life?

This is cliché, but knowledge is power! The more we know, especially earlier on, the more informed we are at making decisions and the better our oral and health outcomes are. I believe teaching children anything about health is wise, especially in a time where we are plagued with so many diseases and unhealthy lifestyles.

Why is water (fluoridated water, in particular) so important to oral health?

Adding fluoride to water was one of the most innovative public health advancements around the world. Fluoride prevents tooth decay by making teeth stronger and more resistant to acid attacks. It also helps with slowing down or stopping the decay process. When fluoride levels in water are at optimal levels, it helps to protect teeth against cavities.

What are some of the unique challenges more rural areas (like some in Louisiana) face when it comes to oral health?

The biggest challenge is access to care. Rural areas just don’t have enough dentists going to those areas. Also, transportation for patients is difficult … and then patients with special needs … there just aren’t enough dentists that specialize in hospital dentistry and pediatric dentistry to be able to treat these patients. Many new dentists don’t want to go to practice in small towns. With the exorbitant amount of debt dentists are facing, it is very difficult to go to small towns because we have to make enough money to pay back our loans. Private practice is what pays, but not many patients can afford to pay private practice prices. Those patients who receive Medicaid are not eligible to go to some of those practices. There are challenges for everyone.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic made educating about oral health more challenging in schools?

Virtual teaching has been a huge undertaking. Hopefully with the vaccine administration, students returning to school and life returning back to normal, educating and providing care will be easier.