Celebrating Social Mission | Eastern North Carolina Now

    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of ECU News Services. The author of this post is Spaine Stephens.

The ECU School of Dental Medicine earned a national award last month for its focus on social mission, health care equity and service. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

    The East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine has received a national award for its advances in social mission - from addressing the oral health care gap in rural North Carolina communities to providing access to a dental education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    The school was presented a Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation Award for Excellence in Social Mission in Health Professions Education on March 28 during the 2022 Beyond Flexner Conference in Phoenix. The award was one of four Macy Awards presented, and the only honor given in the Institutional Excellence category.

    Social mission encompasses initiatives that teach or improve quality of life in areas including community engagement, diversity, health disparities reduction, value-based care and impact on the social determinants of health.

    "We are inspired by ECU's vision of creating leaders with a passion to care for the underserved and by their innovative community-based, service-learning model for educating oral health providers," said Dr. Claire Pomeroy, chair of the award selection committee.

    The Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, which advances health care through education, created the awards program in 2016 to recognize excellence for social mission in health professions education. The program was developed in collaboration with the Beyond Flexner Alliance, a national movement focused on health equity and training health professionals as catalysts of more equitable health care.

    "We are humbled by this recognition; it is one of the most significant honors our school has received since opening our doors to students and residents just over a decade ago," said Dr. Greg Chadwick, dean of the School of Dental Medicine, as he accepted the award alongside Dr. Margaret Wilson, vice dean. "This award is a beacon - a standard - by which we set our goals for the school's next decade."

    To second-year dental student Kayla Kinard, the award signals that the school is doing something right - and she is excited to be a part of it.

    "As a student with a disadvantaged background, I constantly told myself I would become the change I desired to see growing up," said Kinard, who was born and raised in Durham. "ECU's School of Dental Medicine believed in me and believed in what I could contribute to North Carolina as a whole. What I love most about the school are the ample opportunities offered to students to serve and expand our knowledge and skills outside of our traditional training. The SoDM continuously illustrates their devotion to bettering the health and quality of life of all North Carolinians."

    Dr. Candice Chen, chair of the Beyond Flexner Alliance Board, said that devotion is transformed into action through the school's innovative programs aimed at patient care and unique educational opportunities.

    "What ECU does to train community-based providers for rural North Carolina is both the hardest work and the most important," Chen said.

    The School of Dental Medicine and its model of eight community service learning centers (CSLCs) situated across North Carolina were created on a foundation of social mission. Fourth-year students complete three, nine-week rotations at CSLCs across the state, giving them exposure to the cultural differences, unique health care challenges and specialized needs of different rural communities.

    The school's formula addresses the state's oral health care needs from every angle. Seasoned dentists and educators teach tomorrow's providers by educating students who are community-oriented advocates for individuals, special populations and communities. The school's vision promotes a distinctive primary care focus that treats the whole patient and provides access to care for rural, underserved and under-resourced areas.

    "I truly do think the light of ECU shines through each of us and in the smiles of each patient we touch," said Dr. Amanda Stroud, a member of the School of Dental Medicine's inaugural Class of 2015 and dental director for AppHealthCare in northwestern North Carolina. "The light continues to glow in each graduate and each student as they increase access to care in the areas they most care about. That same light is now reflecting back on the school itself with this much-deserved award, spotlighting the innovative ways ECU's dental school has worked to fulfill its mission."

    The award also secures the school a significant spot in the historical context of social mission in dentistry.

    The Beyond Flexner Alliance aims to promote social mission in health professions education by networking learners, teachers, community leaders, health policy makers and their organizations to advance equity in education, research, service, policy and practice. The 1910 Flexner Report, which led to the closure of many medical schools and undermined diversity in medicine. The Beyond Flexner Alliance advances the need for health sciences educational institutions to go beyond the Flexner Report and focus on social mission.

    Third-year student Ricky Ghai said the school uses that context to create daring new ways to approach and look at health care and dental care.

    "It has been absolute pleasure to be surrounded by individuals that constantly inspire me by pushing the boundaries of oral health care for everyone," he said. "This school has taught me that finding inequality in oral health care within our community is only the first step in building a better future. The key to a lasting solution is not in the plan itself, but in every step leading to its implementation and in every person willing to help along the way. At ECU SoDM, you will always find someone willing to help you make a difference."

    Second-year student Cherina Jo McKnight said the school's mission attracted her because of its focus on underserved populations.

    "My goal is to bring widespread oral health care issues to the forefront of public awareness and take more action in closing the gaps in health inequalities," McKnight said. "I knew that committing to this school would teach me the keys to unlock many doors closed to underserved populations. I have a unique perspective of walking in the shoes of many Medicaid patients, and I can sympathize with their financial challenges and lack of resources."

    The school ensures students have an understanding of the state's biggest health care challenges and how dental care fits into a primary care-focused approach to improving health and health care for North Carolinians. The school's statewide presence also helps build partnerships that bring stronger solutions to communities and patients.

    "Our school was built upon relationships at every level across North Carolina," Chadwick said. "It was created to meet the need for a school that would train dentist leaders to practice in the most rural and underserved communities and to face health disparities and inequities head on - and not only to discover solutions, but also to create them."
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