VCU graduate Briona Phillips, standing outside and wearing her graduation robe.
Briona Phillips has examined the impact of discrimination as a barrier to oral health care in the Black community of Baltimore. (Thomas Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Class of 2024: Briona Phillips brings life experience to her exploration of dental care and equity

For her Ph.D. from VCU’s School of Population Health, she explored bias, fear and other factors in her birth city of Baltimore.

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Trauma is a big reason why many people aren’t getting proper dental care, and Briona Phillips brings a lifelong perspective to the issue.

The Baltimore native earned her Ph.D. in social and behavioral sciences this month from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the School of Population Health. Her doctoral research explored the impact of discrimination as a barrier to oral health care in the Black community of her hometown.

“I’m interested in prevention and how trauma affects your health,” Phillips said. “Why am I seeing different health outcomes between different communities?”

As a child, she associated dental care providers with fear. As an adult, in terms of public health research, this led her to explore the barriers that prevent people from going to the dentist. 

Growing up, Phillips remembers hearing that visiting a dentist would mean getting a silver tooth. Children might have thought it was cool getting a tooth pulled or getting a – silver tooth could look like fashionable grills – but she said they didn’t have the dental literacy to know that it was treatment for tooth decay.

She recalls how dentists were used as a scare tactic – that they only pulled teeth if she ate too much candy and didn’t provide restorative measures or oral health education.

“My parents were fighting and holding us down to be able to fight through that encounter,” Phillips said. “And that really changed a lot of my trajectory, not only in my professional life but also personally in terms of the research that I do now.”

In Chicago, Phillips earned dual master’s degrees — one in public health, with a concentration in community health science, and one in social work, with a concentration in child and family services. She chose VCU to expand her studies in the doctoral program.

Her research focused on Black adults, discrimination in the oral health care setting and its impact on the use of dental services. The study aimed to understand the psychophysiological effects of discrimination and propose practical interventions for achieving more equitable access to dental services for Black adults in Baltimore.

Phillips selected her birth city so that her research could help her community, which has endured historical injustices including redlining and other forms of discrimination. She grew up in West Baltimore but went to school in Northern Baltimore, which is considered a more affluent neighborhood. Her school bus route showed her the stark segregation within her city.

“Now, it makes sense in terms of health equity, in terms of dentists and in terms of [health] providers,” she said.

Phillips found that discrimination significantly reduces the likelihood of an individual going to the dentist. Fear also was a key variable between discrimination and utilization. And intersectional factors, such as class and gender, also influence the type of discrimination someone may face – such as the perception of whether a patient could afford a dental service.

In addition to her research at VCU, Phillips worked on an NIH-funded research project, WE (Wellness Engagement) Project 2.0 in Petersburg, which trains wellness ambassadors to serve the community and assist in health research. For four years, she was a graduate research assistant to her mentor, Maghboeba Mosavel, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, School of Population Health and the associate vice president of community partnerships in the Division of Community Engagement.

“I think she is definitely the type of student that, at VCU, we pride ourselves on,” Mosavel said. “For me, her passion about social justice is in her research.”

Reflecting on her time at VCU, Phillips is grateful to have found a community of like-minded individuals focusing on research and equity.

“I gained a mentor that I can call for life,” she said. “My mentor is really grounded in community-engaged research and being able to impact the community beyond the research.”

After more than a decade of college and research, Phillips is taking a break before her next endeavor. Whatever it is, Mosavel is confident that her protégé will thrive.

“I think whichever university or organization that she goes to,” Mosavel said, “is going to be so fortunate to have somebody with her overall skill set, her focus on health disparities, as well as that compassion and clarity of vision.”