Global Health Nexus, Millennium Issue

International Partners in Health: The University of Copenhagen

John Nissen
International Liaison, with the Assistance of Dr. Neal Herman, Clinical Professor of Growth and Developmental Sciences (Pediatric Dentistry).

"Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts. The runway is covered with snow and ice, but fear not, we Danes are used to this." Thus began one of my early international trips for NYU Dentistry.

The Scandinavian Airlines System airport bus brought us to the hotel located in central Copenhagen. Next came a quick shower and change of clothes, and a five-minute ride on the #9 trolley to meet the dental faculty at the University of Copenhagen. The faculty's newly renovated quarters, which also serve as a dental center for the local health authority, were bustling. Patients of all ages and backgrounds were completing huge yellow dossiers. The staff, relaxed but garbed in starched clinical attire (many with the unusual wooden shoes typical of Denmark), were methodically and thoughtfully engaged with each person who came through the large doors into the clinic.

As I entered, I was greeted by a third-year graduate student: "Yes, Mr. Nissen, Poul Erik is in his office, third on the left." A quintessential Dane-short in stature, direct in his eye contact- Dr. Poul Erik Peterson proffered a warm handshake and an invitation to tea and Danish pastry. "You had a good trip? Wonderful! Now to our meeting."

We entered the conference room. There sat an impressive group, a subset of the senior faculty. Each had a pile of reports and papers on the table. All for me! In one brief but very full hour and a half, I was given a history of the school, a 100-page outline of the curriculum changes that had been passed by the faculty and were on their way to the ministry for approval, a digest of the current political and financial struggles at the university and the clinic, and a suggestion of the ways in which we might consider an official collaboration between Copenhagen and NYU. Then came the penetrating questions: Why was I visiting Denmark? What about NYU and its approach to teaching, its commitment to public health, its interest and experience in international education? Finally, at the end of this first session, I was introduced to two D.D.S. students whom Dr. Peterson had selected as possible exchange students for the following September at NYU.

Next came a tour of the well-appointed clinics (furnished with the chairs manufactured in Denmark that are now often encountered all around the third world as a result of a joint World Health Organization-Danish health development project), introductions to department heads and students alike (everyone knows everyone else on a first-name basis), a visit to the state-of-the-art library, a lunch of open-faced sandwiches, and a wrap-up tête-à-tête.

Dr. Peterson and his colleagues in Copenhagen did not know much about NYU Dentistry before receiving my letter, but yes, having done his homework, Dr. Peterson would be happy to vouch for us to his dean and support the development of a substantive relationship between our faculties. He would promote an official collaboration and would come to New York University on his next visit to the states. He arrived that spring 1996.

Dental training as an independent professional discipline in Denmark traces its history to 1888. From 1941 to 1991, there existed a separate Royal Dental College, which, aside from the teaching of undergraduates, was entrusted with the task of conducting research and providing postgraduate and continuing education along with responsibility for special clinical tasks in the fields of oral diagnosis and treatment.

In 1992, the college became a part of a new faculty of health sciences in which dentistry was merged with medicine and human biology. In this new agglomeration, 60 percent of the basic health sciences courses are given jointly to dental and medical students. Dental students receive their entire clinical training as part of a five-year dental course for the first degree (a combined B.S./D.D.S. in the American system). Unlike medical students who are assigned to a diverse number of university hospitals for their clinical experiences, all the clinical training for dental students is provided at the 224 dental unit facility at the School of Health Sciences in central Copenhagen.

Dentistry in Denmark, the smallest of the Scandinavian countries, and the education and training of its health care professionals at the University of Copenhagen, are truly unique -- not just different. The country's socialist traditions and pragmatic work ethic are everywhere apparent. Central and local governmental health authorities fund an extraordinarily high level of general care for the full population. The ministry of education provides complete support for the education and research work done at the university.

At age 47, Poul Erik Peterson (currently head of graduate studies and community dentistry, and dean of the school for the past three years) embodies that tradition fully. He did his medical and dental training in Copenhagen. Eight years later, he went on to earn Bachelor of Arts and Master of Science degrees in sociology. In the late eighties, he spent time at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom and at Harvard. In addition to his work on the faculty, he is an ongoing consultant to the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva and, for the last six years, has held the directorship of the WHO Collaborating Center for Community Oral Health Programmes and Research.

Dr. Peterson's personal energy is boundless. His commitment to community dentistry, to a sophisticated level of education for the students he teaches, to substantive personal research, to an enormous list of one-time and ongoing development projects in Romania, Madagascar, and the People's Republic of China, are all testimony to his hard work, rigorous thinking, and expansive world view.

Over the last four years, a number of important activities and projects between the University of Copenhagen and New York University College of Dentistry have evolved. These include a formal visiting student project, whereby two full-time D.D.S. students from Copenhagen have enrolled at NYU Dentistry each fall. In addition, in the winter of 1999, Dr. Anthony Vernillo of the NYU Dentistry Division of Basic Sciences was invited to lecture on diabetes and oral health at the University of Copenhagen.

Dr. Neal Herman, clinical professor of growth and developmental sciences (pediatric dentistry) at NYU Dentistry, became fully immersed in the world of Danish dentistry in the spring of 1998. He was hosted by Dr. Peterson and presented a lecture to the full faculty at the Panum Institute, the major research and academic center for dentistry in Denmark. His topic was Oral Disease Trends and Oral Health Care for Children in the United States.

Dr. Herman spent a full week observing how the Municipal Dental Health Service of Denmark operates in city, suburban, and rural settings across the country. He visited six facilities and met with faculty, staff, parents and patients. The similarities and differences between the Danish and American delivery systems were the main topics of discussion. Neal was impressed with the widespread, organized, and effective program, which made a positive impact on the oral health status of children throughout the country. His hosts demonstrated how Denmark has achieved a lower prevalence of dental disease and fewer unmet needs among children than the United States.

In May of 1999, Dr. Peterson came for a second visit to New York. He spent five days as a visiting lecturer at NYU Dentistry. He presented nine hours of seminars on a variety of topics: the oral health care delivery system in Scandinavia, changing disease patterns, the social context of oral disease, research methods in community oral health, applied statistics in research, the global aspects of health care, and the role of the WHO in public health care. He was warmly received by the faculty and students who attended his presentations. As a result of that visit, Dr. Peterson was invited to join the advisory board of the Minority Oral Health Research Center at NYU.

The relationship between the University of Cophenhagen and NYU Dentistry continues to grow stronger each year, adding to the distinctly international character of the NYU Dentistry faculty and student body and expanding the College's global perspective.