Dental students bridge cultural, health barriers at Castle Square

Castle Square residents receive oral and overall health information from multilingual student volunteers

Tufts Dental students and faculty last month began the first stage of a groundbreaking new project to reach out to Boston’s Chinatown community.

The Linkage of Tufts University Students (L.O.T.U.S.) Community Service Program at Castle Square held their first screening clinic for residents of the Castle Square Apartments complex on May 5. The screening was the first step in developing a clinic to aid nearly 1500 underserved residents at the building located on Tremont Street near Berkeley Street in Chinatown.

“There are bridges everywhere that can be built with this project,” said Dr. Aruna Ramesh, Interim Assistant Chair of Diagnosis and Health Promotion and one of the program’s faculty volunteers.

The L.O.T.U.S. program began under the guidance of Dr. Kanchan Ganda, professor of medicine, who identified the apartment building as a favorable site for a community clinic in the Chinatown area. The program volunteers plan to gather data from several screenings, complete an assessment of residents’ needs, and develop an on-site clinic.

The May screening event began with a presentation in both Cantonese and English by Dr. Daniel Lee, an assistant clinical professor with Prosthodontics and Operative Dentistry, nutrition student Tina Chang (2G), and dental student Alan Wong (D14) on the link between nutrition, oral hygiene and systemic health. Approximately 40 patients then underwent an oral examination and health assessment. Other measurements, such as height and weight, were also taken. Patients left the screening with hygiene kits and information about oral health and the Tufts Dental UG and PG Clinics.

Dr. Ramesh said that Dr. Lee’s presentation was a great way to introduce the residents to the screening and begin the process of earning their confidence.

“Dr. Lee was a great bridge,” she said. “He built trust and connections between the patients and the volunteers. The patients really opened up to us.”

It’s not just the Castle Square residents the L.O.T.U.S. project is hoping to reach – the organizers at TUSDM are working to incorporate medicine, nutrition, and other health sciences from Tufts into the project to develop a comprehensive clinic that will serve residents and foster the interprofessional education (IPE) initiatives at the University. IPE is an teaching approach in which two or more professions learn with, about and from each other in a collaborative environment. . The group will develop the framework for IPE’s part within the project by the fall.

“Everything is linked,” Dr. Ramesh said. “We want to develop a model on what role IPE will have, how to evaluate success and how to maximize gains for the individual student.”

Of the 1500 residents of Castle Square, 63 percent come from households with incomes below the poverty line. The majority of the residents, around 70 percent, are of Asian descent, and many do not speak English.

“Regardless of the language barrier, there’s also a cultural barrier with the residents,” she said. “First-generation immigrants don’t have as much access to important health information, and they can have issues with trust.”

The process to get the project off the ground has not always been smooth. The organizers hope to eventually screen around 300 residents in order to begin building their needs assessment, but a screening in June was cancelled due to low participation by both the volunteers and the Castle Square residents. However, Dr. Ramesh says this was also a learning experience — they discovered, for example, that they were mainly getting elderly patients, and needed to specifically try to reach families and children.

“There’s a lot of potential here,” she said. “We’re reaching a population that is very underserved, and at the same time we’re allowing our students to go out and have a culturally-enhancing experience.”