Long before he came to Michigan, Heikki Tala, DDS, PhD, MPH ’72, worked as a school dentist in rural Finland. The job, he says, “was more like slaughter” than dentistry, because he spent so much time pulling rotting teeth from children’s mouths.
“It was so terrible to see those suffering kids. I had no other goal than to change that picture.”
But how? Even after he became an assistant chief dental officer in Finland’s Ministry of Health in 1970, Tala realized he lacked the skills and knowledge to organize the nation’s dental system so that its children would grow up with healthy teeth.
So he set out to learn. With scholarship assistance, Tala spent a year at UM SPH from 1971 to 1972. “When I came to Michigan I was a dentist, and when I returned back home I was a public health person,” he remembers.
Back in Finland, Tala became the country’s chief dental officer and began transforming the Finnish oral health care system. Using World Health Organization guidelines for oral health, he set national goals, organized courses for the country’s leading dentists, launched dental education programs for expectant parents, built a network of community clinics where kids under 18 could get free dental care, and implemented a nationwide information system.
Communities in Finland began competing with one another to be number one in oral health. Dental schools began adding public health experts to their faculty. Tala himself started working as a consultant with WHO, doing for countries on four other continents what he was doing for Finland.
At his retirement in 1991, Finnish children enjoyed some of the best dental health in world. Tala had achieved his life’s goal: “Healthy teeth, healthy dentition, a healthy mouth in a healthy child. All of this comes from my year in Michigan,” he recalls. “It was fantastic. I must give big, big, big credit to Michigan.”
Kathy Stack, a dental hygienist with an MPH (’95) in dental public health, spent the past two years working to improve kids’ teeth in her home state of Connecticut. Through a program called “Home by One,” Stack helped set up ongoing relationships between dental providers and children six months and older. Because low-income kids are at high risk for dental disease and often have trouble accessing dental care, Stack worked with a local WIC (Women, Infants and Children) office to establish “dental homes” for clients and to provide information for parents on best dietary and oral-hygiene practices, referrals and recommendations for preventive care, and the application of fluoride varnish to young children’s teeth.
Amanda Roffe, MPH ’09, never meant to work in dental public health. But a field-placement internship led to a job offer, and the next thing she knew she was the coordinator of dental services for the Henry Ford School-Based and Community Health Program in metro Detroit. It’s public health at its best, says Roffe, who studied health behavior and health education at SPH.
With 11 clinics—nine of them housed in the Detroit Public Schools—the Henry Ford program provides medical, mental health, vision, and dental care to children throughout the city. Roffe works in clinics with kids and staff, writes grants, and helps parents navigate the health system. In workshops, she teaches parents what a cavity looks like and how to get their children to brush their own teeth at night. “The parents are very excited and welcoming,” she says. “After our first workshop, they said, ‘We want you to come back!’”