With few people relishing a visit to their dentist, the idea of enthusiastically queuing to see one seems far-fetched, particularly at an event billed as a “fun weekend of entertainment for the whole family”.
At the hugely popular Mayor’s Newham Show, though, that’s exactly what happens, with oral health promoter Ann Coveney and Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust’s mobile dental surgery struggling to keep up with demand.
“People bring their whole family to see our dentists at the Newham Town Show because they like the service they get – and it’s free,” explained Ann.
And for many people in Newham, that’s critically important. As Ann pointed out: “When you are struggling to make ends meet while living in a deprived part of the country, good dental hygiene is rarely a priority – but it should be.
“The mouth is the opening to your body. Poor oral care can lead to all sort of problems, including heart disease, stroke and respiratory infections.”
Ann, a former dental nurse, now works tirelessly as the oral health promoter for dental services in Newham, on the London fringe, and has spent more than a quarter of a century spreading the word about dental health. Though she is too modest to say so, the queues at the Newham Show are, at least in part, a tribute to her tireless campaign to highlight the importance of oral care.
Her motivation is to reduce the number of children who arrive at the trust’s surgery – or any one of the 29 high street surgeries in Newham – for multiple extractions when it’s too late for preventative treatment.
“Economically and socially, this is one of the most deprived boroughs in the country,” she explained. “The people of Newham speak 147 different languages and for many of them life is pretty tough. Unfortunately they don’t see looking after their teeth as particularly important.”
As well as highlighting the need for people to look after their teeth – and their children’s teeth – Ann can help in practical ways, such as by letting people know the costs involved.
“When you are on a budget, walking into a dentist can be daunting in more ways than one,” she said. “Yes, a check up will cost an adult just under £20, but we can at least put their mind at rest by letting them know what sort of bill they can expect. That’s much better than going in blind.”
The trust’s own surgery at Shrewsbury Road Health Centre is a specialist practice for special needs patients who are referred by dentists, GPs and other professionals, and Ann’s outreach sessions always end with a call for people to visit their nearest surgery. It’s not about drumming up business for the trust but about preventing oral health problems across a broad range of groups.
“I talk to a wide variety of community groups across Newham, including Muslim, Hindu, Polish, Roma, Lithuanian, Russian, Asian and Afro-Caribbeans, as well as sitting down with women’s groups, mums-to-be, school children and carers in residential homes,” said Ann, who also trains trainers and inspires others to get her message across.
The diversity of the borough is challenging, but also very rewarding. “I’ve been to Muslim and Hindu weddings and shared dinner in a restaurant with a group from the local mosque,” she said. “I work closely with all our ethnic and faith groups and it’s great to be welcomed into those communities as it helps me to do my job.”
One of the most challenging populations to reach is Romanian nationals. “You have to be invited to talk to a Romanian group, and once a local group asks you to talk to them they invite other groups from further afield,” Ann explained. “It’s not easy, but I am pleased to say I now have a good relationship with local Romanians.”
Ann’s message to all the groups is clear. She tells them how important it is to look after their teeth and gums, with a particular focus on making sure they care for their children’s oral hygiene.
Getting that message across usually involves an interpreter or sign language or perhaps an understanding of cultural differences, but whatever it takes, Ann will find a way to deliver it.
She visits schools, sometimes talking to as many as eight different classes in a single day, works with midwives – “severe morning sickness can really damage the enamel on a mother’s teeth” – gets herself invited to a vast range of community groups and sets up displays in libraries and other community buildings.
Now one of many oral health promoters across the country, reflecting the modern understanding that prevention is better than cure, Ann was originally something of a pioneer.
She first began working in Newham 35 years ago as a dental nurse with Newham Health Authority, which began to do some early health promotion work. Ten years later Sarah Turner, then Newham’s district dental officer, decided that this was the way forward and created the role Ann still holds 25 years on.
“We already had an interest in preventative work and Sarah recognised the value of that and asked me to focus on it,” Ann explained. “It’s a challenging but rewarding role and I enjoy making a difference.
“The population of Newham changes constantly and so there are always new groups to talk to, but I also see people in the street who I know have healthier teeth now because of advice I gave them sometimes many years earlier.”
From pre-natal and mother and toddler groups through to working with carers in residential homes, Ann’s work spans the generations as well as Newham’s many cultures. She also runs special health days at events such as the Mayor’s Newham Show, setting up and breaking down the stand as well as spending all day talking to local people about oral health. Unsurprisingly, her diary is booked up six months in advance.
“All I want is to get to the stage where we no longer have people – particularly young people – coming in to the surgery having to be referred for general aesthetic to have multiple extractions. That breaks my heart,” she said.