New Jersey has been one of just a half-dozen states without a full-time dental director – and hasn’t had one in over 30 years, instead relying most recently on a nurse practitioner who oversaw an education program for school children.

That finally changed, as of this week. Enter Dr. Darwin Hayes, who says New Jersey needs a state dental director for the same reason people need dentists – to have an expert in the field to help with their oral health care.

“Someone who can advocate for patients who have issues with access to care, the affordability of cost of dental care, and also having someone who’s going to be a voice for them for many people who don’t even want to be vocal about that part of their health care that maybe goes unnoticed and untreated,” Hayes said.

“This has been a position that hasn’t had anyone in it in over the last 30 years, so there’s a lot of unmet challenges and things that need to be done,” he said.

Jim Schulz, director of governmental and public affairs for the New Jersey Dental Association, said it’s exciting that someone well-versed in the nuances of oral care is now sitting in a leadership position at the state Department of Health.

“While New Jersey is a small state, we are a diverse state, and it is important that we have that understanding of where our oral health needs are,” Schulz said.

“The association, while we promote the importance of oral health, it really is the charge and the responsibility of the department, in our mind, to ensure that there’s a comprehensive oral health plan and that it works with all the stakeholders to ensure that the oral health of all New Jerseyans are being improved,” he said.

Hayes said his first priority as dental director is to create a comprehensive oral health plan for New Jersey, as they have in two-thirds of other states.

“Specifically, focuses for those people who are underserved, marginalized, those that of course don’t have access to care,” Hayes said. “And also those that we don’t even know or may not even be in our numbers of those that have even visited the dentist.”

“That comprehensive oral health plan is going to take some time,” he said, “but luckily we are surrounded by a couple of other states that have been doing some dynamic things over the last several years, and they have some health plans that we are going to be utilizing to look at best practices.”

Hayes said he also plans to focus on creating a surveillance system to measure oral-care outcomes, which he said will add accountability and lead to better results.

“So that we can check and see where our progress is, where our needs are, where the gaps are, and using that information and that data to be able to make improvements,” he said.

Hayes said another priority is to better integrate oral care into overall, primary health care, so that doctors, patients and educators better understand how different medical disciplines are related. There are connections between oral care and systemic and chronic medical diseases, he said.

“I think one of the things that a lot of people forget is that the mouth is part of the head, and the head is part of the body,” Hayes said. “But we unfortunately have been working in silos for years, medicine and dentistry.”

Hayes said the department will also utilize stakeholders in the state, which appears sure to include the Dental Association and others.

Schulz said Hayes appointment helps makes oral health a higher priority for state government.

“Once you have an understanding of where those oral health needs are, now you can start to look at granting dollars and putting resources behind initiatives that improve oral health across the spectrum here in New Jersey,” Schulz said.

Hayes grew up in New Jersey and graduated from the Lawrenceville School, then left the area for college and a variety of jobs, including with the Air Force, before returning. He has commuted from Trenton to the Bronx, N.Y., for roughly seven years as lead co-director of an oral-health training program.

Hayes’ salary will be covered by two multi-year federal grants.

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