Darwin K. Hayes, DDS, MHA, FAGD. Dr. Hayes is the State Dental Director in the New Jersey Department of Health.
You are the first Dental Director at the Department of Health in 30 years. Can you tell us the significance of this position being filled?
There has been 30 years of unmet oral health needs without a Dental Director in the state Department of Health. The challenges related to oral health unfortunately have not been a major priority for the state. The state and the Department of Health’s effort to secure a grant for this position is awesome. It’s a step in the right direction to make sure there is an advocate for oral health for all the residents of New Jersey, with a special emphasis on those who are most vulnerable, such as people with developmental disabilities, veterans, under-represented minorities and children who don’t have access to dental care.
What will your priorities be?
A major priority will be to introduce and influence policy change as it relates to oral health. Being able to have data and statistics on best practices and to share that information with policy makers and legislative decision makers will be key. Another priority is to create a comprehensive state health plan. Right now, New Jersey does not have a plan for oral health, probably because there hasn’t been a dental director for 30 years. We’ve got some very helpful and key stakeholders throughout the state, but, nonetheless, a strategic plan is valuable as it relates to being able to apply for and secure grants and other types of federal funding — and basically serves as the catalyst for a lot of programs that can be launched and then sustained after the grant period has sunset.
What can you tell us about the Oral Health Plan you are developing?
The strategic will plan will be a document that will live within the Department of Health and serve as a roadmap. Right now, we have many stakeholders working on key initiatives related to oral health. In general, they’re working in silos. Imagine if there was more synergy and we were all working together on a common directive and common plan of action. That plan would allow us to really stay focused. It will be a plan that’s based on the input of stakeholders. … We will work to make sure that some of the best practices nationwide are implemented or at least introduced for discussion in New Jersey. We know of course that some priorities that work in New York or some other state will not necessarily work in New Jersey. That’s why its key that we get feedback from stakeholders such as the dental association, dental school, hygienist’s association, universities, consumers, public health advocates … and others.
How has COVID-19 changed the way patients receive dental care?
COVID has presented some unique challenges, many that we in the dental community have been prepared for. Back in the 80s, we had the AIDS HIV epidemic, and it changed how we practice dentistry — as it relates to universal precautions and infection control. Forty years later, we have another type of infection that dentists are relatively well equipped to handle. We’ve been utilizing Personal Protection Equipment — masks, gloves, gowns — for decades. Some efforts have changed and we follow CDC guidelines. We may not be able to see as many patients as we typically would because of the potential for airborne transmission. We also have to spend some more time in between patients, disinfecting or decontaminating the room, and the air. We’ve been doing all this … though now we have to spend more time on these efforts. We’ve always done health screenings but now dentists take temperatures, and also ask patients questions before they even come to the office. Dentists are using HEPA filters to decontaminate the air. We are still delivering essential care, but in a different way. … Like any small business, dentists are being hit hard financially. For instance, it’s been a struggle to obtain PPE, but also the costs of PPE have been three to five times higher than before the pandemic.
Finally, we like to ask people to tell us something about their lives outside of work. Where can we find you on a weekend?
Either I’m spending time coaching new dentists and dental and pre-dental students. I’m also mentoring international dentists looking for a U.S. dental education and license. You’ll find me giving tips and strategies, and coaching and mentoring these dentists and future dentists on the weekends. … Or you’ll find me on the pitch, the soccer field, with my 13-year-old son. Just watching him develop his soccer skills and basically being a soccer dad.