Using focus groups to design systems science models that promote oral health equity

Susan S. Kum, Mary E. Northridge, Sara S. Metcalf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: While the US population overall has experienced improvements in oral health over the past 60 years, oral diseases remain among the most common chronic conditions across the life course. Further, lack of access to oral health care contributes to profound and enduring oral health inequities worldwide. Vulnerable and underserved populations who commonly lack access to oral health care include racial/ethnic minority older adults living in urban environments. The aim of this study was to use a systematic approach to explicate cause and effect relationships in creating a causal map, a type of concept map in which the links between nodes represent causality or influence. Methods: To improve our mental models of the real world and devise strategies to promote oral health equity, methods including system dynamics, agent-based modeling, geographic information science, and social network simulation have been leveraged by the research team. The practice of systems science modeling is situated amidst an ongoing modeling process of observing the real world, formulating mental models of how it works, setting decision rules to guide behavior, and from these heuristics, making decisions that in turn affect the state of the real world. Qualitative data were obtained from focus groups conducted with community-dwelling older adults who self-identify as African American, Dominican, or Puerto Rican to elicit their lived experiences in accessing oral health care in their northern Manhattan neighborhoods. Results: The findings of this study support the multi-dimensional and multi-level perspective of access to oral health care and affirm a theorized discrepancy in fit between available dental providers and patients. The lack of information about oral health at the community level may be compromising the use and quality of oral health care among racial/ethnic minority older adults. Conclusions: Well-informed community members may fill critical roles in oral health promotion, as they are viewed as highly credible sources of information and recommendations for dental providers. The next phase of this research will involve incorporating the knowledge gained from this study into simulation models that will be used to explore alternative paths toward improving oral health and health care for racial/ethnic minority older adults.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number99
JournalBMC Oral Health
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 4 2018


  • Agent-based modeling
  • Community-based oral health care
  • Dental public health
  • Focus group analysis
  • Older adults
  • Oral health equity
  • Oral public health
  • Qualitative analysis
  • Racial/ethnic minorities
  • Systems science

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Dentistry


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