10:46 AM

How One Program Is Bridging Cultural Divides on Oral Health

Imagine you’re a migrant farmworker in Texas. Or a Native American family in Alabama. Maybe you moved to the United States from another country to be closer to family and you’re trying to learn a new language, job and culture.

Then imagine, on top of that, trying to navigate a complicated health care system — medical appointments, dental appointments and appointments for your children or your parents.

This all-too-common scenario is one of the main reasons DentaQuest launched its Cultural Ambassador Program in 2012. Originally designed to build relationships among migrant farmworkers in Texas, the program has since expanded to include a team of nine member advocates who reach out to dozens of communities and connect them with oral care, education and resources.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure everyone knows and understands their benefits,” says Tara Hopkins, member advocate supervisor and outreach coordinator at DentaQuest. “The Cultural Ambassador Program bridges gaps related to social determinants of care and can help improve health outcomes for all of our members.”

Meeting Members Where They Are

In 2012, when DentaQuest member advocates learned migrant farmworkers needed help navigating the oral health system, they began by connecting with community organizations already serving these members. They partnered to host events such as health fairs, food pantry events and parent meetings. The programs were built around cultivating spaces where people are most comfortable — and can easily and openly learn and ask questions about oral health.

Nearly a decade later, the roots of the program are stronger than ever.

In May, for example, Nora Rodarte, a DentaQuest member advocate, attended an Immigrant Workers Day event hosted by the Border Network for Human Rights. The organization also hosted a COVID-19 vaccination site for migrant farmworkers and featured local speakers discussing human rights and immigration policy.

“It was very inspirational,” Rodarte says. “There was also a resource fair where we were able to provide oral health education and dental kits. We shared information on how members can receive their value-added services for their dental appointments. I was able to explain our website and how to print out forms. [One] mom was very happy.”

Breaking Down Barriers and Misconceptions

Helping people navigate the system and understand their benefits is one piece of the program. But as people’s understanding of oral hygiene can vary significantly among different populations, the Cultural Ambassador Program also emphasizes education — particularly addressing any misconceptions that could become barriers to care.

“A lot of this program is done by talking to our community partners — the agency or school, for example — and determining common issues or misconceptions,” Hopkins says. “We want to respect any cultural beliefs but also educate.”

In one recent example, Brenda Olivares, another DentaQuest member advocate, conducted a presentation for a Texas school district with a strong Vietnamese population. “During the presentation, the question was asked about using salt to help with teething,” Olivares says. “I was able to discuss the matter and offer alternatives for teething. The parents said they have always used salt and were not aware of other methods to help alleviate teething.”

The DentaQuest team gathers that knowledge and experience every day, which strengthens the program.

“We also gave a presentation to a group in African refugees in Dallas,” Hopkins says. “We learned from our community partner that before coming to the U.S., they would use wood or bark to brush their teeth. So, we knew how to prepare for and address that during our presentations.”

Going the Extra Mile

These examples demonstrate the importance of strong community partnerships and direct outreach, as DentaQuest works to provide culturally competent care and resources to all members — no matter where they are or where they are from.

“We want to ensure everyone has the opportunity to learn about oral health and how to access their benefits,” Hopkins says. “We want our members to know we respect them, we want to help them, and they are welcome at DentaQuest.”

Whether that is through working with tribal Head Start programs in Alabama, reaching out to migrant farmworkers in Texas or reading books to kids during virtual health fairs at multicultural events, DentaQuest’s member advocates continue to make those connections.

“Ultimately,” Hopkins says, “this is what will help us achieve our mission of improving the oral health of all.”