Providing resources and education to put healthy smiles on the faces of children is enough to give Dr. Christina Demopoulos a smile of her own.
Through her work with UNLV’s School of Dental Medicine, Demopoulos seeks to improve the health of Southern Nevada children by providing them with education, preventive services, and oral hygiene supplies necessary to improve their dental hygiene.
For nearly 20 years, the professor of biomedical sciences has focused on increasing access to care for underserved populations.
She started at the dental school as a member of the team managing Crackdown on Cancer, a program that provided oral cancer screenings across the state to 78,000 youth and included dental hygiene and tobacco assessments. The work demonstrated to her just the need for youth education on dental hygiene in Nevada — both in rural counties and metropolitan communities.
“It is disheartening to see that many families have to make a choice between putting food on the table and taking their children to the dentist,” Demopoulos said. “I have worked for the last 20 years to educate families on prevention as well as the availability of follow-up care that can be provided at no cost or a reduced cost through the school’s dental clinics.”
She went on to become the administrative lead for the Crackdown on Cancer Program in 2003, where she oversaw its expanded reach in Nevada. “I really enjoyed being able to impact entire populations,” Demopoulos said.
As the Crackdown on Cancer Program wrapped up, Demopoulos began to work on a programwith Title I elementary schools in the Clark County School District (CCSD). The school-based program provided dental sealants, a protective coating to prevent decay. Her work with the sealant program helped increase the number of children able to be scheduled at one of the many UNLV School of Dental Medicine dental clinics for follow-up care.
In 2017, Demopoulos was given the opportunity to further expand her efforts in the community by targeting one of the most vulnerable populations: children under 5. She helped develop and implement the Early Childhood Caries Prevention Project, which is a cavity-prevention program for children in federally funded Early Head Start and Head Start Centers. Demopoulos partnered with six other states on this project.
“I was excited that UNLV School of Dental Medicine was chosen to be the academic partner for a multi-state program,” she said. “The aim of the program is to implement evidence-based strategies in federally funded Early Head Start and Head Start Centers such that children will enter kindergarten without any cavities.”
Her passion for helping others stems from her upbringing. Growing up in Las Vegas, Demopoulos recalls not having much, but she valued her family and the warmth they shared with others.
“My parents were born and raised in Greece so they didn’t have a formal education,” Demopoulos said. “My dad had to drop out of school in the 3rd grade to help support his family. My mom didn't graduate high school because she married young and came to America with my dad. We may not have had a lot growing up, but we always had our family and the understanding that we had to give to others.”
Identifying the needs of a community and implementing ways of addressing these needs is what Demopoulos strives to achieve, and she shares this goal with her students at the dental school.
One of her assignments requires first-year students to design an oral health lesson plan that can be implemented in CCSD elementary schools.
She said the students understand quickly how important it is for children to learn about dental hygiene — and have access to resources for it — before dental problems turn into larger health issues. The dental students also see why the cost of a trip to the dentist is a barrier.
Demopoulos has used her various professional roles to advance support for laws regarding dental insurance. In her former role as the Nevada State Dental Director, she was able to advocate for uninsured/underinsured children to have access to the much-needed dental benefits that could improve their quality of life.
Now Demopoulos has a larger platform to advance policy that supports dental benefits — a national one. She was recently elected as a director-at-large for the Board of the American Association of Public Health Dentistry and co-chair to the American Association of Public Health Dentistry’s Council on Educational Affairs.
“I am in a position to draft statements and policies that can help change legislation to provide more dental benefits for adults and children,” she said.
With all that she has done to support children in the community, Demopoulos said she felt she could do more. In 2017, she became a foster parent. “I have learned so much about the trauma that can occur in the lives of young children and how that can impact access to any health-related services that they receive,” she said. “I have learned so much about his needs and how to be a better parent.”
Still, she wants to learn more. She recently decided to further her education in applied behavior therapy to have an even bigger impact on the quality of her son’s life.
Through years of working with children, including her own, Demopoulos has helped them overcome fears of the dentist. “I find that not only children, but adults can be afraid of going to the dentist,” Demopoulos said. “They see a white coat and a mask, and they get scared.”
But the most important goal is to create a healthy and safe environment where all children can flourish, she said.
Work on the UNLV Community Engagement Council
Demopoulos serves on UNLV’s Community Engagement Council, a network of faculty and staff who help advance the university’s community engagement mission. She said that best part of the council meetings is hearing from leaders from community nonprofits and government agencies, who are invited to the monthly meetings to make presentations about their organization’s partnership interests. She believes it’s crucial to receive information from different community leaders, and it helps UNLV connect with key community leaders and their organizations.
She uses these interactions to share information on her school’s free or low-cost services with nonprofit and government agency leaders.
“I am always humbled by the recognition from our many community partners,” she said. “I do the work because I want to help the community, but when you look at it from their point of view, I am a dentist offering services that many would not offer without something in return.”