Campus & Community

He wants to be America’s dentist

6 min read

Phillip Woods intends to battle ‘silent epidemic’

Phillip Woods will graduate from the School of Public Health with a master’s degree in family and community health, fulfilling a longtime dream of going to Harvard. He wants to be a leader in improving the oral health of all Americans, particularly the poor, minorities, and immigrants: ‘Oral health is more than just teeth. It impacts school and work attendance and performance, self-esteem, and the quality of life.’ (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)

When Phillip Woods was in the eighth grade, he announced to his parents, “I’m going to Harvard.” It was a big goal for the son of a Baptist preacher in rural North Carolina.

On June 6, Woods’ 30-year-old dream will come true. Now 43, a dentist, musician, Army Reserve officer, and energetic optimist, he will graduate from the School of Public Health (SPH) with a master’s degree in family and community health.

“Everything happens at the right time,” he says. “And I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

Built like a boxer and as congenial as a talk-show host, Woods is now ready for his next goal. He wants to be a leader in improving the oral health of all Americans, particularly the poor, minorities, and immigrants. “Oral health is more than just teeth,” Woods says. “It impacts school and work attendance and performance, self-esteem, and the quality of life.”

It even impacts the readiness of Army recruits for combat, as Woods has shown in his research at the School of Public Health. He analyzed an Army report on the teeth of recruits, reasoning that they would provide a representative sample of the oral health of young people in the United States. Results showed a significant disparity based on race, income, and education. Black recruits had a much higher rate of decay than whites.

That disparity, in turn, affects the readiness of soldiers for combat. No branch of service will send people into danger zones if they judge them to have enough problems to cause a dental emergency within the next 12 months. Woods’ analysis showed that four out of every 10 recruits fall into this category. He found that almost 60 percent of such recruits are African-American. In the fall, Woods will begin working for the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, where he will start on the long road to doing something about such disparities.

Choices shaped by racial tension

The winding road Woods has already walked began in Burlington, N.C. He knew he needed good grades to get into Harvard so he worked hard, earned high SAT scores, and became the valedictorian of his high school class. He received an added boost when he was elected president of the student body.

In 1976, Woods was accepted to Harvard. He also won entrance to Duke and the University of North Carolina (UNC). Then he hit a roadblock.

“Every day,” he recalls, “we heard about busing and the racial conflicts it caused in the Boston area. Moving a thousand miles from home into a situation like that began to look less and less attractive. I opted for UNC.”

Woods earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry, then went on to dental school at UNC. He graduated in 1984, but his education had not been free of racial tension. “My instructors asked me, ‘Who told you you could be a dentist?’” he recalls. “So I started looking north.”

After training in periodontics at Tufts University, working at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and teaching at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., Woods wound up practicing dentistry in Needham, a small, middle-class suburb of Boston.

Woods was surprised by the lack of cavities among the children that he examined. When he began working with predominately black children in a low-income Boston neighborhood (Codman Square), the contrast was startling. There he saw many children with major problems. “Some had teeth rotted to their gums,” he says. “I treated one 6-year-old who had life-threatening abscesses.

“I realized how government policies unfairly affect minorities and people with low income,” he continues. “Medicaid reimburses dentists $36 for procedures we charged $200 to $250 for in Needham. This results in shortages of dentists in places where they’re most needed. What’s worse, no national fluoridation program exists in the United States, even though adding fluoride to water systems has been shown to significantly reduce tooth decay.”

Woods managed to get funding for a high school-based health clinic in the Codman Square neighborhood. “School-based clinics are a great way to engage kids, parents, and teachers,” he says, “while offering health care and lessening the patient load at community health centers that often are crowded and underfunded.”

Besides bringing local children together for dental care, the clinic serves as a gathering place for their parents. Woods, a part-time musician, artist, and actor, gets people together for concerts at which he sings and plays the piano. “I’ve been singing and playing gospel music since I was 7,” he says with a smile. “Music breaks barriers. It takes people out of their separate boxes and brings them together.”

A broad impact

But this was still not enough. “It’s more than fixing Tommy’s teeth,” Woods says. “The real problems in many communities go to broader issues of housing, education, and unemployment, as well as access to health care. I began to feel that what I did as an individual wasn’t doing enough to solve these problems. That drew me to public health in general and the Harvard School of Public Health in particular.”

Last year, Woods won a 2001-02 Commonwealth Fund/Harvard University Fellowship in Minority Health Policy, a program to help physicians pursue careers in that field. It’s the first year that dentists were selected, and Woods was named one of two fellows. “It’s a great opportunity,” he comments. “Dentists historically have had only a small voice in making health care policy.”

While training as an Army Reserve officer last summer, Woods learned of a 2000 survey done by the Department of Defense on the dental health of 4,346 military recruits. He had already been accepted into the School of Public Health, so he decided to do his research thesis on the Army portion of the survey. Woods examined what role race, income, and education play in the dental health of a large sample of young people. His conclusion: “During a time when we’re engaged in a war on terrorism, when we’re witnessing dramatic cuts in funding of state and national dental programs, we’re facing a silent epidemic of dental and oral diseases. This epidemic affects tens of millions of people, namely low-income, minority, and immigrant populations. I want to play as large a role as I can in doing something about it.”