Working Together to Access Dental Care for Young Underserved Children: A Problem-Based Learning Approach to Increase Health Professional Students Awareness

Publication ID Published Volume
9380 March 26, 2013 9
University of Washington


The course uses a problem-based learning (PBL) approach to introduce students to the process of critical thinking and its application to clinical problem solving in a public health context. Students are expected to critically evaluate a dental public health case involving biological, behavioral, social, ethical, and cultural elements; seek resources and information to develop an understanding of patient needs; develop hypotheses regarding the nature and complexity of the problem; prioritize goals and objectives relevant to the problem; and develop a solution. The centerpiece of this curriculum is a novel video case scenario that highlights the real-world consequences of the lack of parental knowledge and dental community cultural awareness on the oral health of young Hispanic children from lower socioeconomic families in rural communities. The mother is well-meaning and concerned. The dentist is well-meaning and accommodating. Yet problems emerge. Immediate issues such as clinical hours that are conducive to hourly rate farm worker’s, to longer range issues such the fact that the older daughter, who had her dental needs treated in an emergency room situation acts as the interpreter for her non-English speaking mother are portrayed. Important consequences of other facilities and services not communicating clearly and not attending to cultural sensitivities are also able to be presented effectively. The video case scenario has successfully been used to teach dental students about oral health disparities.

Disparities in early childhood caries disproportionately affect racial/ethnic minorities and low-income individuals. By focusing on the prevention and management of nutritional and self-care behaviors among new parents using an innovative video-based case scenario, the curriculum will train medical students how to approach these issues during well baby visits in clinical settings. This is significant because children visit their pediatrician or family physician far more frequently and at earlier ages than they do a dental care provider, which highlights the need to equip future physicians with the tools they need to combat this problem. In addition to fact-based modules, self-reflective modules encourage medical students to think about how they would implement such practices in a clinical setting and ways they can strengthen interdisciplinary working relations with dentists.

Until last year, the content on oral health in a public health framework was provided in a paper-based format. In order to inject new life into the content, we developed this video-based scenario that would provide both experiential and didactic learning. The course is centered on a problem-based learning approach but mainly focuses on students’ ability to think critically when examining complex issues that have societal implications. When we compared the student ratings of the course prior to last year (paper-based format) with last year (video-based format) we found that students rated several indices higher for the video-based format. They gave a higher mean rating for whether the course met its educational objective, a higher rating for the instructor’s effectiveness, reported they had spent more hours per week on the course materials, and felt that a greater percentage of those hours were valuable for advancing their education. This increased level of engagement, we believe, will lead to improved memory when faced with similar situations in years to come. Based on the analysis we did of the students’ ratings of the course, we felt that the transition from a paper-based to a video-based format was very effective in engaging the students and impacting their desire to learn. We have manipulated group size and have found that smaller group sizes (< 12 students) work better for engaging the students in meaningful interactions. Additionally, we have used other dental public health problem scenarios to allow for this approach to be used with an entire dental school class (> 50 students).


Pickrell J, Spector G, Chi D, Riedy C. Working together to access dental care for young underserved children: a problem-based learning approach to increase health professional students awareness. MedEdPORTAL Publications. 2013;9:9380.

Educational Objectives

  1. Attain an awareness and understanding of dental public health principles and problems in rural United States, including how oral health problems affect particular vulnerable subgroups (e.g., racial/ethnic minorities, low-income) and communities.
  2. To describe the associations between early childhood caries and parental access to education.
  3. Identify and discuss alternative points of view about a public health problem involving dentistry.
  4. Be able to suggest strategies physicians might use to implement early oral health intervention programs within a medical setting.
  5. Illustrate ways that physicians can partner with dentists to provide consistent nutrition messaging to parents of young children.
  6. Prepare a coherent presentation of the public health problem and offer potential solutions using resource materials supplemented with electronic media.


  • Vulnerable Subgroups, Minority, Low-Income, Caries, Building Oral Health Capacity (BOHC) Collection, Health Equity Research, Public Health Sciences, Population Health

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ISSN 2374-8265