Global Health Nexus, Winter 2003

Our Man in Puerto Rico: Dr. Walter Psoter

How do you convince dozens of children in a remote mountain village to travel 100 miles to visit a dentist?

Dr. Walter J. Psoter, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology & Health Promotion (shown above), faced this challenge several years ago when he launched an islandwide survey of Puerto Rican children’s oral health. As Dr. Psoter debated how to coax youngsters from rural hamlets into making the trip to his San Juan research center, a colleague called with a tip: “Don’t worry about convincing the kids, because teachers in Puerto Rico have a strong sense of responsibility for their students’ health. They will take the lead in recruiting youngsters for clinical trials, signing their consent forms, and coordinating their travel to and from research centers.”

“I immediately picked up the phone,” recalls Dr. Psoter, “called the village school principal, and in a few days, a busload of school children was on its way to my San Juan clinic.”

The clinic was located at the University of Puerto Rico School of Dentistry (UPRSD), where Dr. Psoter was doing a postdoctoral fellowship in oral epidemiology as part of an NIH-funded study directed by Dr. Ralph V. Katz to examine why Hispanics have higher oral cancer and mortality rates than whites. UPRSD’s research director, Dr. Augusto Elias-Bonito, was impressed by Dr. Psoter’s ability to organize public health studies, and, after receiving Dr. Katz’s endorsement, asked Dr. Psoter to join the UPRSD faculty and help build its research program. The eventual result was Dr. Psoter’s current joint faculty appointment.

“This joint appointment is mutually beneficial from many perspectives,” explains Dr. Psoter. “UPRSD benefits from my expertise in grant writing, research design, and analysis. And NYU Dentistry gains from the connections I make with researchers in Puerto Rico. Dr. Psoter was recently awarded $300,000 as an investigator on a grant from the NIH to develop UPRSD’s research infrastructure. The grant also funds a partnership with NYU Dentistry to assess how oral health disparities in Puerto Rico, particularly with regard to dental caries, can be reduced. Caries rates vary significantly between the island’s poor rural areas and developed sections of San Juan.

“I’ve always enjoyed being on the front lines of public health efforts,” says Dr. Psoter. “Puerto Rico is my latest front line and another chance for NYU Dentistry to impact oral health far beyond New York.”